• 07:44 PM ET  09.05


HAVANA, Cuba -- The strangeness of Cuba is mesmerizing, as the U.S. soccer team is learning after arriving here for Saturday’s first-ever World Cup qualifier against Cuba (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavisión). Just about every ordinary Cuban that you talk to is friendly, curious and open (especially if you speak Spanish). Many of them are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that everything will change here if Barack Obama is elected president.

But then comes the strangeness: one of the first things that any U.S. visitor sees here is the giant billboard on the road near the airport featuring the U.S. president, George W. Bush, next to Der Fuhrer. The billboard reads “Full De Asesinos,” which has a double meaning. “Ases” means Aces (the playing card theme is an echo of the U.S.-produced playing cards showing ex-Iraqi leaders), while “Asesinos” means Murderers.

(In case you’re wondering, one of the other two guys is the late Cuban-exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa.)

None of the U.S. players wanted to comment on what they thought when they saw the sign on Thursday, but a source close to the team says they most certainly saw it. My only hope, though, is that the U.S. players also get the chance to speak to a few ordinary Cubans during their stay here.

• SI photographer Simon Bruty has been in Havana all week covering the atmosphere around the soccer game as well as cool scenes from Havana, sporting and otherwise. Make sure to check out his photo gallery from the week here.

• Several U.S. news organizations received visas to report from Cuba this week, including SI, the Washington Post, the New York Times and ESPN television. But at least one U.S. newspaper was denied a visa. The Miami Herald applied for one and was rejected, according to a source close to the situation. The Herald has not been allowed to have a reporter in Cuba for more than 40 years. However, it does have undercover reporters on the island who file stories under the “Miami Herald Staff Writer” byline. It seems like the Herald can’t win: Cuban exiles in Miami often protest that the newspaper is too far to the left, while the Cuban government thinks it’s too far to the right.

• On Friday a group of U.S. writers had a roundtable interview with Cuban soccer federation president Luis Hernández at the stadium. Hernández, a well-connected pol and former national-team player, has been in power for 10 years, and he spouted some of the expected hoo-ha about Fidel Castro loving soccer (not likely; Fidel’s a baseball guy) and the excellent financial support the soccer federation is getting from the Cuban government (also not likely when former players like Maykel Galindo say they were only allowed to have one uniform jersey per year).

But Hernández was polite and even funny at times (“We prefer not to talk about women’s soccer, because as you guys know, you’re the best!”), and he did have a few intriguing things to say:

• Cubans who attend Saturday’s game will only have to pay 1 Cuban peso (or just a few pennies) for a ticket.

• The 1938 Cuban World Cup team that beat Romania and reached the quarterfinals was comprised largely of recent immigrants from Spain. (In that respect it was similar to the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that beat England.)

• When asked if it was possible for Cuban players to go play in European or South American leagues to improve their skills and help the national team, Hernández had an odd response. Citing the recent cases of Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho and their club/country conflict regarding the Olympics, he claimed that European clubs have too much power and hinder players’ chances to compete with their national teams. Cuban players, he said, have the opportunity to play more together and go on their own international trips with the national team to Germany, which has a training agreement with the Cuban federation. None of that argument makes sense, of course, but remember, Hernández is a pol who wants to lose as few of his players to defections as possible.

• Hernández first made the national team as a 17-year-old player and wore the Cuban No. 10 jersey for 10 years. “As a player I defeated the U.S. national soccer team twice,” he said proudly. “In the Pan-American Games in 1971 in Cali, Colombia, and in 1979 in Puerto Rico. Of course, the U.S. soccer level was very low [then]. I hope to do the same tomorrow night!”

• Although 10 Cuban soccer players have defected to the U.S. in the past three years, Hernández said he is not concerned about any defections from the Cuban team when it visits Washington D.C. to take on the U.S. on Oct. 12. “These players who have left the team have done that by themselves. But we consider that it has really been an indiscipline because they have left the team when they were supposed to defend the country.”

More from Havana tomorrow before the game ...

(Photograph: Simon Bruty/SI)


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