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  • 12:06 PM ET  09.06

 

HAVANA, Cuba -- Gameday in Havana. It’s sunny and hot (86 degrees), but the gametime (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavisión) means it should cool off a bit by kickoff.

A few thoughts heading into the game:

The most intriguing player on the field tonight will be 22-year-old Cuban striker Roberto Linares (see photo here). Linares, whom I spoke with before a training session earlier this week, scored Cuba’s goal in its 1-1 tie with the U.S. in the first game of the Olympic qualifying tournament last March in Tampa, and he stayed with the Cuban team after seven of his teammates defected to the United States following that game.

Cuba’s German coach, Reinhold Fanz, has said that Linares is a better player at this age than German international Gerald Asamoah, whom Fanz once coached at Hannover 96. And Linares certainly came through in Cuba’s triumph in the first round of World Cup qualifying against Antigua and Barbuda, scoring three goals to help send Cuba through on an 8-3 aggregate.

When I sat down with Linares this week he was friendly but guarded. It would have been great to have a completely open conversation about all sorts of topics: How much temptation did he have to join his defecting teammates last March? Would he like to leave Cuba someday and join a professional club overseas where he could realize his full potential and make a lot more money? Is he entertaining any idea of leaving the Cuban team when it visits Washington D.C. to play the U.S. in October?

But as you’d expect, an open conversation about those topic was impossible. Still, Linares had some interesting things to say:

On his memories of the 1-1 tie against the U.S. in Tampa last March: “It was a good game for us and for them as well. We fought hard and had a beautiful experience in the United States. Despite what happened with our athletes [defecting] I think the team fought and did as well as possible.”

On how many times he has seen the U.S. senior team play on television: “I have seen them in World Cups. I’ve seen them in this phase of World Cup qualifying and on video in the Gold Cup. They’re good players, and they have a high level. [Landon] Donovan and [Clint] Dempsey are very good. I think we’ll have to work very hard to beat them.”

On whether it’s possible to have success as a Cuban player in international games if you can’t join a club overseas in a better league: “No, on that topic I am not going to speak with you.”

On what he thought of the seven Cuban teammates who defected to the U.S. in the middle of the Olympic qualifying tournament: “I thought it showed a bad attitude because they abandoned the team. In that moment we had tied the U.S. and we were in a very good moment. After that it was very difficult. The team had fewer players, and we couldn’t make substitutions. It wasn’t the same.”

On what he wants to achieve in his soccer career in the future: “I want to be a great player.” Pause. “And live here in Cuba. Yes.”

After we spoke I wished Linares the best of luck. He smiled, shook my hand and let me take his picture. He said he was looking forward to the start of the Cuban amateur league season on Sept. 17 with Villa Clara (Maykel Galindo’s old team), and he hoped to do well in World Cup qualifying.

Here's a photo by SI's Simon Bruty of the billboard I wrote about yesterday featuring a picture of the U.S. president, George W. Bush, next to Der Fuhrer. 

The U.S. isn’t thrilled with the field conditions. “The grass is a little long, but we’re told maybe it gets cut tomorrow,” coach Bob Bradley said after training at Estadio Pedro Marrero on Friday. “The field is a little harder right now than the field was in Guatemala. So whether or not they get a little bit of water on it I don’t know. But the field underneath is quite hard.”

How does a field like this impact the game? “It just means that at times bounces are tricky and footing’s tricky,” Bradley said. “From the Trinidad-Cuba game there were a number of players that lost their footing, and you see more guys slipping and then getting up and recovering, so we hope to handle those things well.”

Frankie Hejduk is bummed about the lack of surfing. “I haven’t seen any waves,” joked Hejduk, a hardcore surfer dude, when asked if he wanted to get out on the water here. “I was asking about the beach, but under my breath. Bob [Bradley] didn’t really want to hear about it.” Someone pointed out that there’s not much of a beach in Havana; it’s more like rocks and a seawall. “I’ve been in plenty of those before,” Hejduk replied. “I was kind of hoping there’d be some leftover waves from the hurricane, but it’s pretty flat.”

The Cuban state media is starting to warm up to this game--a little bit. After days of almost no coverage for the U.S.-Cuba game, the state newspaper Granma had it as one of the lead stories in today’s sports section. One interesting thing: there was none of the hyperbolic anti-U.S. government propaganda that you see in the news section of the paper. In fact, the U.S.-Cuba article was pretty much a straight news story, although it did say that for Cuba beating the U.S. would be “una misión heroica” (a heroic mission).

Everyone here is still curious over whether the 17,000-seat stadium will be filled. Only 4,000 spectators attended Cuba’s qualifier here last month, but several Cubans (including the restroom attendant at El Aljibe, our awesome restaurant last night) swore that the joint would be packed.

This trip has been a blast. We’ve been doing plenty of work here in Havana, but it’s impossible not to have a good time on the side. Last night we had five guys together for dinner and couldn’t fit all of us into a normal taxi, so we hopped into a 1953 pink Chevrolet convertible taxi and rode to El Aljibe in style. With the stars overhead and thousands of Cubans hanging out on the oceanside Malecón, our driver drag-raced with a 1950’s-era Buick full of Cuban men and women who were waving friendly hellos at us. Few things will ever make you feel more alive.

Check back here before the game for updates from the stadium...

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