HAVANA — Nobody thinks the beautiful game is about to run baseball off this Caribbean island, although it's indisputable that Cubans have developed a near-fanatic interest in Messi and Ronaldo, Kaka and Xavi.
That was evident during Real Madrid's 2-1 victory over Barcelona. Fans gathered across the island to watch the Clasico live on television, many ignoring the fact that Cuba's baseball league is closing in on its playoffs.
Reflecting the growing interest, some fans are willing to spend up to $50 for a Real or Barcelona shirt — that's 2½ times the average Cuban's monthly salary — to support their favorite Spanish club.
Real Madrid fan Antonio Tenjido hosted 15 fellow "football fanatics" on Saturday to watch his club upset Barcelona at Camp Nou. Tenjido also has organized 16 amateur teams across the capital, which is dotted with fan clubs.
Among the hardcore fans at Tenjido's bash was 23-year-old student Abel Carrasco, who wore Sergio Ramos' shirt, a Real scarf — and on his right calf a tattoo of Real Madrid's famous crest.
In between shouts of "gol, gol, gol" and "ole, ole, ole" — and shots of vodka and orange juice — there was also lots of good-natured ribbing of the lone Barcelona fan, Pablo Saucedo.
"I wasn't going to miss this," Saucedo said. "Imagine, I have to watch this despite all the others being Real Madrid fans. They're my friends. What am I going to do?"
Soccer has been setting down roots around the Caribbean with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona reaching a new fan base. The Spanish league is followed on local television in Cuba, and state television helped the sport grow by telecasting the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The sport also is catching on in places like Venezuela, another baseball-crazed country.
"Real Madrid games are shown around the world and serve as a bridge for contact with the fans," said Emilio Butragueno, the former Real Madrid striker and director of institutional relations for the club. "Though we may not be aware of it, a kid in Cuba or Trinidad and Tobago sees Cristiano Ronaldo as someone who is part of his life."
In a recent poll by Cuban station Radio Coco, about 2,000 people were asked what sports events interested them most.
Surprisingly, 43.5 percent listed a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. A baseball game between Cuba and the United States in the World Baseball Classic interested 18 percent. An Argentina vs. Brazil soccer match was singled out by 14.3 percent. A local baseball game drew a lowly 10.1 percent response.
Soccer has a 100-year history in Cuba, but has been overshadowed by baseball. The national soccer federation has been a member of FIFA since 1926, although the national team has seldom made positive headlines and is No. 136 in this month's FIFA ranking, just ahead of Kazakhstan and Ethiopia.
Cuba's only appearance in the World Cup came in 1938. It drew 3-3 with Romania and then defeated the same team 2-1. It was knocked out of the tournament with an 8-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals.
In contrast, the baseball team has won three Olympic gold medals and is considered one of the world's top teams.
In recent Olympic soccer qualifying matches, Cuba was battered 6-0 by the United States and 4-0 by El Salvador. To add to the pain, Cuban midfielder Yosmel de Armas defected to the United States during the tournament. About 15 of Cuba's top soccer players have deserted in the last 10 years.
Osvaldo Alonso left in 2008 and is now a star with the Seattle Sounders, and Maykel Galindo left in 2005 and has been a top player for Chivas USA and FC Dallas.
The defections have hurt Cuba's national team, but haven't dampened interest in the Spanish game.
"Barcelona is my team, and football is my passion but I also love baseball," said 25-year-old Dany Reses, wearing Xavi's No. 6 shirt as he attended a baseball game recently between Cuban clubs Matanzas and Industriales, both of which have booked places in the playoffs.
"I don't think there is a rivalry between football and baseball. Cubans like all sports, particularly when they are top quality."
That would mean Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.
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