North Shore soccer club makes historic Cuba trip

STONEHAM

A soccer team based on the North Shore has just wrapped up an historic visit to Cuba.

The Boston Braves, who play their home games at Lynnfield High School, traveled to the Caribbean island nation earlier in January, the first amateur soccer team to do so since the U.S. embargo over a half-century ago. The Braves’ itinerary included two games against Cuban teams and visits to not only the capital city of Havana, but also the countryside.

“I’m in a state of shock from what we experienced,” said Braves team president Spiros Tourkakis of Lynnfield. “It’s something that you can truly say is once in a lifetime, something amazing. Building relationships, playing, experiencing the country, the hospitality — unbelievable!”

The Braves, in their 15th year, are a squad of senior, or veteran, players. Their average age is 50 years old. They travel the globe playing similar teams comprised of alumni of world-famous soccer clubs such as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. They also welcome such veteran teams to the Boston area. This past summer, players with ties to Barca played the Braves at Lynnfield High and Manning Field in Lynn. Then, in the fall, the Braves delivered a milestone effort against veterans of Bayern Munich, with a win and a tie against the visitors from Germany.

The games didn’t go quite the Braves’ way in Havana. They lost 5-0 to the Cuban national championship team, Sporting Havana FC, on Jan. 10. Two days later, in their subsequent game, against a mixed all-star team from the Havana soccer league, the play was more even, with the Cuban squad taking a 1-0 victory on “literally a last-minute (goal),” Tourkakis said.

“They’re all fast on their feet, skinny, but with a lot of muscle,” Tourkakis said of the Cuban players. “They’re extremely healthy, extremely fit, every single one we played against. I found them better in soccer than anticipated.”

He also said they were “a younger crowd, 35 to 40 (years old).”

Perhaps better known for its achievements in baseball and boxing, Cuba has played in one World Cup to date, in 1938. However, it has advanced to the quarterfinals of the last two Gold Cups.

Against Sporting, Tourkakis played one-third of the game in net, with Jose Bisbe of Andover playing the other two-thirds. In the subsequent contest, Bisbe played the entire game in net against the Cuban all-stars.

Fifteen Braves players traveled to Cuba, along with two guest players. There were 26 total members of the Braves’ delegation.

The Braves left Tampa for Cuba on Jan. 9. Some returned on the 13th, others on the 14th and 15th.

But this visit was about one year in the making.

It began even before the U.S. and Cuba moved toward normalization of relations, when Tourkakis received an invitation for the Braves to play in Cuba. Tourkakis, whose teams have played in nations ranging from the United Kingdom to Italy to Greece to Argentina, applied for a visa.

In a perhaps surprising move, Tourkakis applied through the Treasury Department. He was rejected the first time but got the go-ahead on the second try.

“We have an embargo,” Tourkakis said. “It’s not under State Department jurisdiction, it’s under the Treasury Department. We have financial restrictions with Cuba, not political restrictions.”

The U.S. and Cuba

Cuba and the U.S. have a long history. The U.S. helped liberate Cuba from Spanish rule in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba became an independent nation in 1902.

“It still maintains its Spanish architecture and culture,” Tourkakis said, “more than other islands in the Caribbean that have become tourist destinations and lost their character.”

Relations between Cuba and the U.S. worsened in 1959, after the Communist takeover of Fidel Castro. Then came the failed U.S.-aided invasion attempt of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later.

Castro stepped down in 2008, with his brother, Raul Castro, assuming leadership of the nation.

This year has been a dramatic one for Cuba, with not only a diplomatic thawing with the U.S. but also a visit from Pope Francis.

Tourkakis seemed aware of all that has changed in Cuba, and all that has stayed the same.

“It is a country of extremes,” he said, likening Havana to Mexico City but noting that in the countryside, “it’s like 50 to 60 years ago.

“When Fidel Castro came into power, he theoretically promised a house and food to everybody. What was here in 1960 was exactly the same. It’s like time travel to 55 years ago. It was very interesting to see … On the one hand, you had great hotels, on the other, you had people with horses on the streets. You could get a good car, but (there were also) horse-drawn carriages.”

The security presence was less than expected. On a 120-mile stretch of highway, Tourkakis saw only one policeman.

“Nobody asked any questions (of us),” he said. “It was the opposite. I think they appreciated the tourism. They liked Americans.”

And, he said, “the Cuban authorities were very cooperative. It was no problem getting in and out. It’s stricter to go through Logan (Airport) than it is to go in and out of Cuba.”

It seems that more changes are on the horizon, specifically from the direction of the U.S.

“They’re building some new resorts,” Tourkakis said. “Europeans and Canadians are going to them. With normalization with the U.S., more Americans will go and more business will develop. With the opening of a U.S. embassy, in the last eight months, prices have gone up 300 percent. There’s a big anticipation that there will be more of an influx of tourism.”

He added, “They have a lot of new resorts, but they need to build more. They have no infrastructure to service future American tourists … I think it has good potential to become, eventually, a very popular destination. It will take several years.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in discussing the question of whether or not he would make a return visit, Tourkakis’ answer was nuanced.

He said that while there were “nicer places” to go for a vacation, he would go back if it was “to learn and experience.”

“Cuba is something you’ll never see anywhere else in your life,” he said. “I would go, definitely go. It’s absolutely worth it.”

Rich Tenorio, Wicked Local Wakefield

January 20, 2016

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