the last pinareño

words: kade krichko

photography: joseph swide

The T-shirt-sopping humidity does little to suppress the echoing drums in San Cristóbal’s La Bombonera, the concrete, Castro-era arena named after the football palace of Argentina’s Boca Juniors. Thousands of roaring Pinareños cram the grandstands; those that can’t make it inside line the outfield fences and blare horns from sugarcane trucks parked in the road. In the distance, nurses and doctors put shifts on hold, straining to watch the action from the roof of Hospital General Docente.

 

Reinier Alcantara, the FC Pinar del Río striker who has been so consistent during his team’s run through Cuba’s Campeonato Nacional, doesn’t have much left to give. With a shredded hamstring driving needles up his leg, he lacks his usual acceleration. FC Villa Clara defenders take notice. They add enough extracurricular contact to keep Alcantara off his game, and the ball out of the net.

 

Playing in front of their hometown with the 2007 national championship on the line, Osvaldo “Osvaldito” Alonso Jr. and Raicel Pozo pick up the slack. Their combined age barely tops 40, but the central midfield duo has been forged over more than a decade. Navigating tufts of crabgrass, Pozo is a midfield pendulum, disrupting and distributing—one touch, two, pass, move. Osvaldito, forever the spark, tackles hard and flies forward, his flashes of creativity pushing the crowd into midafternoon euphoria.

 

Somewhere in the stands is Osvaldito’s father, Osvaldo Alonso Sr., alongside the past champions, Olympians, and national team players that call this sleepy agricultural town home. Nearly three decades ago, he helped FC Pinar del Río to its first championship, but, like the rest, he has never hoisted a trophy here in La Bombonera.

 

Pozo and Osvaldito keep their side level through 30 minutes of slide tackles, nerves, and heavy touches, until suddenly Pinar del Río’s Gisbel Morales breaks free down the touchline. Working his way past two defenders, he reaches the end line, sliding across into the penalty box. Alcantara’s legs come to life, gaining just enough step to beat his mark to the near post, and he slips the ball between the Villa Clara goalkeeper’s legs.

 

“La Bombonera se cayó,” Alcantara would say later. La Bombonera collapsed. The collective roar is heard from across the highway. The grandstand rumba that follows puts Cuba’s structural engineering to the test. Somewhere in between, the tears start flowing.

 

Through 60 interminable minutes, the green-and-white cling to a one-goal lead as the chant of “Pi-nar, Cam-pe-on!” bolsters tired legs. Finally, three whistles write history. The stadium’s makeshift drumline blasts into a frenzy, and San Cristóbal pours onto the field and then into the street.

 

But with players embracing friends and family, and the beer and rum flowing late into the reggaeton-laced after-hours, the celebration of San Cristóbal’s bright soccer future is actually a farewell. Months from now, Osvaldito will be gone. A year later, Alcantara will follow. While tonight San Cristóbal revels in its greatest hour, La Bombonera will never see another championship, and over the next decade Pozo and his hometown will struggle to keep one of Cuba’s greatest soccer dynasties from disappearing into this forgotten countryside.

II

Today, La Bombonera is empty. Ravaged by Hurricane Gustav in 2008, it sits silent, crumbling, and gray. The pitch, once considered among Cuba’s best, is now more dirt than grass, marked by two rusting goalmouths that sit netless at each end. Kicking at the faded field chalk along the center circle, Pozo looks out toward the Sierra del Rosario mountains.

 

The bus doesn’t stop in San Cristóbal. Lost somewhere near kilometer marker 72 on the Autopista Nacional connecting Havana to Pinar del Río, its gridwork of concrete houses rests between Hospital General Docente and the old sugar factory.

 

The town sits on the edge of Cuba’s fabled tobacco country, its morning traffic a slow crawl of old Fords, tractors, and horse-drawn wagons carrying uniformed schoolkids. While the relentless sun burns on the horizon, women in tankinis and flip-flops navigate cracked sidewalks to collect the week’s beans, rice, and bread. A speaker bumps Cuban son from the main square. Cuba may be growing by the day, but San Cristóbal moves at its own languid tempo.

 

Perhaps that’s what brought Raul Rodriguez here half a century ago. A semiprofessional soccer player from Spain’s Canary Islands, Rodriguez was a vocal communist and political leader during the Spanish Civil War. That history caught up with him in 1948, and when newly installed dictator Francisco Franco marked him for death, he was forced to flee to Venezuela with his family. After Fidel Castro brought communism to the Caribbean in 1959, Rodriguez followed thousands of displaced Spanish communists to Cuba, landing in Havana before relocating permanently to San Cristóbal with his wife, kids, and a soccer ball in 1962. While Rodriguez was merely seeking peace after years on the run, it was a move that would change the fabric of the township forever.

 

Manolo Santos still remembers when Rodriguez showed up to the baseball field with a ball.

 

“I had never seen a soccer ball, or any ball that big,” recalls the 67-year-old. “It looked like a pumpkin. We were all so curious how it could work.”

 

British sailors had brought the game to Cuba in the early parts of the 20th century, but it had stayed primarily within the Spanish, British, and Irish immigrant populations of major port cities like Havana and Cienfuegos. When Rodriguez began kicking the ball around San Cristóbal with his three young sons, it didn’t take long for 15 more wide-eyed youngsters to join in. Then, 50. Soon he was organizing impromptu training sessions and playing small-sided games. Each week, the group grew. Everyone wanted to learn the new game from “El Maestro.”

 

“It became a religion,” says Santos, a former San Cristóbal soccer coach and one of El Maestro’s first pupils. Even as Castro exalted Cuban baseball and the island fell into line, San Cristóbal dropped its bates and pelotas in favor of the beautiful game. Funded by Cuba’s national sports association, INDER, El Maestro grew San Cristóbal’s youth program from one team to 10, driving players to games across the country in his 1952 Buick.

 

With no formal coaching background, he was more teacher than trainer, demanding strong ethics, a solid skill foundation, and organization from his players. These ideals contradicted the free-flowing nature of Caribbean soccer, but it didn’t take long for his teams to gain recognition against better-established clubs from the capital city.

 

As San Cristóbal’s first soccer generation became coaches, El Maestro’s empire propagated. In 1979, San Cristóbal’s Lázaro Amado Povea helped Cuba’s national team to a Pan American Games silver medal. (He went on to play in the Olympics in 1980 and the Pan Am Games again in 1983.) And when FC Pinar del Río, the provincial team that represented San Cristóbal, was born in 1978, it looked to the town to fill most of its roster. In fact, Santos, who coached the team until 1986, remembers that 12 of the 20 players on its 1987 squad hailed from El Maestro’s hometown.

 

“That high volume of players is an idiosyncrasy within San Cristóbal,” says Mario Lara, a Cuban-American and ex-Pinareño, and the author of Cuba’s premier soccer blog, Futbol de Cuba. “These players have clearly been exposed to soccer from a very young age.”

 

One of those players was a stocky goal-scorer named Osvaldo Alonso Sr. Raised in a fenced-in one-story house across the street from El Maestro’s training ground, Alonso was most at home putting the ball in the net. It’s rumored that during his early years with FC Pinar del Río, his coach put him into a match down 3–0 with a simple message: “Score goals.” He did, five in fact, marching his team to a 5–3 win in the second half.

 

Alonso Sr. led the league in scoring in 1986, and, thanks to an early goal by San Cristóbal native Rigoberto “Nany” Cruz, the league won FC Pinar del Río’s first national championship in 1987. In the face of traditional soccer hotbeds Villa Clara and Havana, Alonso Sr.’s squad established tobacco country’s first soccer dynasty, winning four titles between 1987 and 1992 and becoming the first Cuban team to reach the finals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in both 1989 and 1990. In the two-leg 1990 final, the amateur team famously tied Mexico’s legendary Club América in La Bombonera, but, having never played above sea level, couldn’t compete in the high-altitude throne of Estadio Azteca.

 

When Alonso Sr.’s son, Osvaldito, made his debut with FC Pinar del Río a decade later, it was only natural for San Cristóbal to dream of more titles. In the spring of 2007, with Pozo and Alcantara playing alongside him, Osvaldito made good on that dream, winning FC Pinar del Río’s seventh championship (the team also finished first in 1995 and 2000)—the third most in Cuban league history—in San Cristóbal’s backyard.

 

But that celebration was short-lived. That summer, Pozo headed to U-23 camp ahead of Cuba’s Olympic qualification rounds, and Osvaldito and Alcantara joined Cuba’s senior national team for the Gold Cup in the United States. Less than a week into the tournament, Osvaldito tempted fate in a Texas Walmart, walking away from his teammates and the national team forever.

 

From there, Osvaldito’s journey is well documented. After running into the muggy Texas night and catching a bus to Miami, the 21-year-old midfielder started over, building a decade-long soccer career that took him from playing for the semipro Charleston Battery to captaining Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders. In 2016, he helped the club to its first professional championship, cementing his place as the most successful Cuban soccer player in history.

 

Back in the national training center in Havana, news of Osvaldito’s defection flew from dorm to dorm. Pozo still remembers the face of the women’s national team player who burst into his room. “She broke down,” he recalls. “She was just crying and yelling, ‘se acabó, se acabó.’” It’s over.

 

Pozo and Osvaldito had started playing together at age nine, rising through the ranks of San Cristóbal’s youth system side by side. After Osvaldito got the call-up to FC Pinar del Río’s senior team, Pozo followed him a game later. Together they went to the capital to train with the U-17 national team, and then with the U-23s, even sharing rooms at the national training facility. But that August, Pozo went back to San Cristóbal alone.

 

“We had to get accustomed to the field without [Osvaldito],” says Pozo. “I still feel his absence.”

 

Pozo still roams the midfield in San Cristóbal, but the 32-year-old no longer wears green and white. In Cuba’s national soccer league, teams are designated via geographic location, meaning that most players represent their hometown club for life. However, when Cuba rezoned his town from Pinar del Río province into the newly formed Artemisa Province in 2011, FC Pinar del Río was split in two, casting Pozo and the rest of San Cristóbal from the dynasty they had helped create.

III

 

Cuban soccer is a revolving door. While the national government takes care of its baseball stars, soccer players are not professionals and remain unpaid, with many unable to afford cleats or other basic equipment. Some teams take public buses to games, but others file into the back of taxi colectivos or trucks flagged down along the highway, hoping to make kickoff. Cuba’s Campeonato Nacional hasn’t helped matters in recent years. Instead of a playoff to decide a league winner, lower level clubs must win a play-in, round-robin, just to get into the regular season. Lose, and the off-season starts before the season even kicks off. For Pozo, that off-season has lasted nearly half a decade.

 

Cuban players strive to make the national team not because it offers them more pay, but because it offers them a ticket out. Over two dozen national team players have defected to the United States while playing abroad since 1999. While baseball players have historically paid high-profile agents to smuggle them off of the island, soccer players must execute their plans alone and in secret, hoping for a window of freedom on an away trip. In 2008, a year after Osvaldito’s flight, Alcantara left Cuba’s senior squad from a Washington, D.C., hotel. Months before, seven players disappeared from Pozo’s U-23 team in Tampa, leaving his squad to play an Olympic qualification match with only 10 men.

 

Those who stay in Cuba are faced with a tough reality: Work within a mercurial league and deteriorating resources, or give up the game forever.

 

“Cubans always endure,” explains Pozo. “Over time, we endure.”

 

 

IV

 

It’s hard to find any shade along the sidelines at Pepe Chepe. With his provincial team eliminated from contention once again, Pozo captains his town league team from the center of San Cristóbal’s pickup field. He’s a little bigger than he was in 2007, a little balder too, but still always one pass ahead. While sloppy dribbling reigns in the afternoon heat, Pozo plays like someone whose feet have taken him places.

 

“By pro [soccer] standards, my career was a failure,” says Pozo. “I didn’t make any money.” He knows soccer will never give him the future it afforded Osvaldito. The midfielder has talked about joining an uncle in Barbados, about playing professionally overseas, but the prime of his career is behind him. Even if he was still in top-level form, time has added new responsibilities. A job. A daughter. A family.

 

Like Nany, Lazaro Povea, and the dozens of former provincial players within city limits, Pozo is now, for better or worse, inextricably linked to the San Cristóbal soccer institution. Ask for him around town, and people nod. “Ah, el futbolista.” The soccer player.

 

V

 

Though government support for provincial soccer has slowed to a trickle, Pozo and Nany are still fighting to keep San Cristóbal on the national soccer map. Following in the steps of El Maestro and Santos, the two are now coaching the town’s next soccer generation. Pozo has even used his position with FC Artemisa to mentor up-and-coming talent, including the handful of local players called up to the U-15 and U-17 national sides.

 

“The fact that there is such a large amount of former players as coaches and trainers [in San Cristóbal] undoubtedly helps in developing a youth system,” acknowledges Lara.

 

But coaching is about more than just developing a future. In the midst of a crumbling stadium, a dismantled club, and no signs of economic reform on Cuba’s horizon, coaching has become a way to protect the legacy that those like Pozo and Nany helped build. El Maestro has passed away, and many of the historical photos of the championship teams have been lost to hurricanes, mold, and flooded basements. A collection of championship and MVP trophies still sits on a shelf at the local soccer academy, but they, too, are starting to fade with age.

 

Like the day that El Maestro first arrived, the sport has once again become an oral tradition, a history shared within San Cristóbal’s tight-knit soccer community, but not much further. In fact, for much of the world, Osvaldito is the only visible link to the rich history of this Cuban soccer cradle. Though, as Santos puts it, “he is a product of a golden era of football.”

 

Pozo is happy for his friend. He says that Cuban soccer players always dream big—of national team caps, of World Cup minutes, of playing overseas—and likes knowing that Osvaldito is out there doing what he always knew he was capable of. Even though the national newspapers have struck Osvaldito’s name from their pages and Sounders broadcasts are all but forbidden on the island, Pozo keeps up with his old captain through phone updates from friends and family. Osvaldito, in turn, often asks about Pozo.

When Osvaldito played in the 2016 MLS Cup, Pozo and friends streamed the game from a hotel room. Though he wasn’t alongside his teammate to lift the trophy in Toronto, they celebrated a month later in San Cristóbal, after Osvaldito came to visit his grandparents and younger brother. Now a US citizen, Osvaldito used his new passport to see Pozo and his former teammates for just the second time in a decade.

 

To mark the occasion, Osvaldito organized a pickup game at Pepe Chepe, the field he used to frequent after and between classes at his high school and middle school. Pozo and his FC Artemisa teammates couldn’t attend between training sessions for the upcoming qualification tournament, but family and former teammates flooded the field to take touches with San Cristóbal’s newest champion. It’s the kind of perfect scenario that so many ex-Cuban soccer players dream about from foreign shores, and hopefully a monumental reunion that won’t have to be celebrated much longer. 

 

In January of 2016, Abel Martinez and Pinar del Río’s Maykel Reyes became the first Cubans to legally play overseas, signing lucrative one-year deals with Cruz Azul Hidalgo and Cruz Azul Premier. The Cuban Football Association has also partially reversed its stance on defected players returning to Cuba to play for the national team, saying in December 2017 that it will start considering players for national team selection on a case-by-case basis. Although the adjustments are too late for the national-team careers of Osvaldito, Pozo, and countless other Cuban players, San Cristóbal’s rising soccer stars may have a chance to earn a living overseas while still representing the country they call home.

 

VI

 

December 11th is not a typical day in San Cristóbal. Flanked by trainers and coaches, players gather near the town’s central square to celebrate Cuba’s National Day of the Soccer Player (Día Nacional del Futbolista). Together, they march down Main Street past the ice cream store and the house of Pozo’s parents, and past the local soccer academy, until they reach the grave of El Maestro. There they pay their respects with flowers and old photos. Later, when the heat dies down, they’ll organize a series of pickup games at Pepe Chepe.

 

“The kids will always remember the man who made this phenomenon part of their lives,” says El Maestro’s son, Raulito Rodriguez.

 

But as San Cristóbal grows further from the days of FC Pinar del Río, it’s unclear who will remember the men that turned El Maestro’s vision into Cuba’s most unlikely soccer dynasty. For now, at least, it’s a story that lives on thanks to the people, and the town, that wrote it.

 

“I’m proud to have done something for San Cristóbal,” says Pozo. “This is where I was born, where I grew, where we won our championships. I will always be Pinareño.”

recommended