NOTE: This story initially appeared on SI.com in September 2008.
HAVANA, Cuba – The U.S. national soccer team arrived here yesterday from Miami for its first-ever World Cup qualifier against Cuba, but they weren’t the only Americans who found their way to Havana. On Thursday night I met up in the Plaza Vieja with five hardcore U.S. soccer fans who defied the U.S. government’s ban on unlicensed travel to Cuba and got into the country by flying separately through a third country.
I won’t be naming them here for obvious reasons, so I’ll call them the Cuba Cinco: four men and one woman ranging in ages from 28 to 38 and hailing from California (two), New York (two) and Colorado.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” said one who travels to every U.S. road qualifier. “The U.S. is playing Cuba and we follow the U.S. team. Then there’s the historical significance of the game. For people who are really fans you can’t miss it. The team’s playing here, embargo be damned. We’re not going to make a political statement. We’re just going to watch the game and take in a new culture.”
“It’s kind of a convergence of different things,” said another. “It’s a World Cup qualifier and it’s being played in Cuba. How often is that going to happen? I always said if it ever happens I’m going to be here whatever my financial circumstances. I can’t really afford this trip right now. I’ve got two little kids at home. But it’s the U.S.-vs.-Cuba in Cuba. There’s not many trips where you can say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So to me it just has to be done.”
The Cuba Cinco has already arranged to rent a snazzy 1950’s-era U.S. convertible to take them to Saturday’s game, and their plan is to wear “Fidel-style caps,” as one of them put it, with U.S. flag bandannas obscuring their faces bandito-style. They also brought several U.S. scarves and flags to take to the game.
They’re part of a growing subculture of U.S. soccer fans who will go to extreme lengths to follow their team--like sneaking into Cuba. This group of five alone had traveled to see the U.S. play in Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, South Korea, Barbados, Germany, Switzerland, Venezuela, England and other countries. (Two of them even went to Barcelona for a game that was supposed to take place against Catalonia but was canceled.) Like the players, they use the term “caps” to describe the number of U.S. games they’ve attended.
“It’s kind of like a secret club,” said one, taking a swig of a Cuban microbrew that came from a majestic five-liter, four-foot-high tube at our table. “You meet these people all around the world, but you never meet them on U.S. soil. One minute you’ll meet someone in Costa Rica and then you’ll hang out in some crazy bar in Guatemala City and the next minute you’re in Korea or wherever it takes you. I love travel and I love soccer, and this is like the perfect fusion. We need a World Cup in Mongolia or something.”
The Cuba Cinco says they’re aware of the risks that come with traveling to Cuba. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, criminal penalties for violating U.S. sanctions against spending money in Cuba range up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in individual fines. Yet it’s hard to imagine a Stars-and-Stripes-waving U.S. fan would face such harsh punishments.
Scenes from Havana: USA's 2008 World Cup qualifier in Cuba
“I’m fine with [the risks],” said one. “I don’t mind being the person that ends up asking for a hearing and then becoming the big constitutional civil rights case. Because I don’t think it’s constitutional for the U.S. to make it illegal for Americans to spend their money in Cuba.”
“If you think about it, too,” added another, “we’re here to support the U.S. national team in another country. If they were going to make an example of us, what kind of example would that set?”
“I will go anywhere our team plays to support our team, which is thereby supporting our country,” said another. “I’m not doing this to hold the middle finger up to the country or the government or anything like that. It’s just that I don’t really care about any arbitrary law that’s going to restrict my ability to travel. We’re supposed to be free. I consider that to extend to the right to travel.”
All five admit they were nervous coming into Cuba and will be again when they return to the States. But each one said the effort and the risks are worth it. “We all know that [the U.S. players] are coming to a stadium where their fans are outnumbered 10,000 to 1,” one said. “I want to be that one guy there supporting them–and show that I’m a fan and I’m willing to spend my own nickel and come out here to see you play.”
“Do the U.S. players know they have fans coming out to support them in Cuba?” one member of the Cuba Cinco finally asked.
I told them I didn’t think so.
“Well, they’ll have at least five.”