HAVANA, Cuba -- Reinhold Fanz, the German coach of Cuba’s national soccer team, just can’t get any respect. Official CONCACAF match reports misspell his last name as Franz (since presumably all these Germans are named Hans or Franz, right?). And when I spoke to a German journalist here on Wednesday he said he’d never heard of Fanz until he was named Cuba’s coach in January. (And this was coming from a guy who follows German soccer.)
So who is this German journeyman of a coach? Well, Fanz coached Eintracht Frankfurt (for nine games in 1998-99 before being fired) and Hannover 96 (from 1996-98), though he left Hannover before U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo joined the team. In recent years Fanz had been snorkeling in the lower-divisions of German soccer, but last January he finally took the plunge with Cuba.
“Three years ago the Cuban team stayed and played in Germany, and I was a coach from a club in Germany,” says the ruddy-faced Fanz. “The president [of the German club] knows the president [of the Cuban federation], and he always said when Cuba gets better I should take the post. At first I don’t want to go to another country, I want to stay in Germany. But then I see the [Cuban] team two or three times: last year in New Jersey at the Gold Cup and last September here.”
“I see the under-23 team and say, ‘O.K., we have a little chance, and we can try it.’ And so I begin the job here in January.”
Cuba’s soccer history isn’t a storied one. The Cubans have played in one World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in 1938 after beating Romania 2-0 in Toulouse, France. (They got smacked 8-0 by Sweden in the quarters, but hey, they won a World Cup game against a European team on European soil. Not everyone can say that--cough, cough, USA.) Cuba also came within two points of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, but otherwise Cuban soccer has been in the doldrums until this current run to the CONCACAF semifinal round.
Not that Fanz is expecting much more for now. Seven players from Cuba’s under-23 team (including captain Yeniel Bermudez) defected to the U.S. at the Olympic qualifying tournament in March, and while Fanz claims it wasn’t a big issue (“only one or two players had a chance for the A-team,” he argues), there are plenty of other challenges facing the coach.
“The job is very difficult here because there is no professional league, no professional players,” he says. “And the climate is difficult. It’s many problems here. But it’s an adventure. There are good things too. The boys are naturally not stars, but there are not many problems with the players. They want to get better, and we make a big step from March to August. We have many players between 18 and 23 years old, and they learn from game to game.”
Fanz’s team outscored Antigua 8-3 in the home-and-away first round of CONCACAF qualifying to reach the semifinal round. But Cuba fell 3-1 at home to Trinidad & Tobago in their first semifinal-round qualifier last month, a result that even the state-controlled newspaper Granma called a “fracaso” (total failure) in Thursday’s edition.
(You know things are rough, by the way, when even the official state organ starts slagging on your team. If I were Herr Fanz I wouldn’t be making long-term housing plans here. And while we’re on the topic of Granma, named for the boat that brought Fidel Castro back to Cuba from exile in Mexico, it’s worth pointing out that today’s short newspaper piece previewing Saturday’s game was buried below stories about the start of the Paralympic Games in Beijing and the qualification of a Cuban women’s hammer-thrower for the world track and field championships. Yikes.)
While Fanz didn’t want to go into any details on how he plans to play against the U.S., he at least projected some optimism about Saturday’s game. “Did you see the game Guatemala-USA [a 1-0 U.S. win]? I see it also--on DVD,” he says. “And Guatemala can win against USA. And Trinidad is also a good team. Every team can beat the other team. It’s who has the most luck and makes one or two mistakes less than the other teams who will be No. 1 and 2” and advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
He was smiling as he said this. I didn't check to see if his fingers were crossed behind his back at the time.
(Check back in for more blog posts from Cuba later today...)