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Men’s football Onel Hernandez included in Cuba’s landmark international team

NORWICH City winger Onel Hernandez could be set to make his debut for Cuba at the end of this month, after a handful of foreign-based players were called up to the national team for the first time.

He will be part of the squad for the Concacaf 2022 World Cup qualifying games against Guatemala and Curacao, which will both take place in Guatemala City at the end of March.

Hernandez has been called up to the Cuba national team before, in November 2018, but even though he was permitted to join up with the squad to train, his call-up to the team itself was later rescinded.

This was partly because the Cuban FA has always been reluctant to give caps to professional footballers playing abroad, and as a result, many Cuban footballers have defected when given the chance. 

But Hernandez has never gone down this route and has regularly spoken of his desire to represent his country. He and numerous other players have a long-held ambition to play for Cuba, and it’s one they might now be able to realise.

The Norwich winger has spoken in the past of his country’s proud history, mentioning important figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and wants to be able to contribute something to it himself on the football pitch.

“It will be a dream to play for my country,” Hernandez said in the Norwich City programme last month when the possibility of a call-up arose.

“If everything is fine with it then I could make my debut for the Cuban national team next month and it will be incredible.

“I know that there are a lot of people working on it, I had a message from the national team, from the people who are there. 

“They said for the next international break in March, Cuba has two games for the World Cup qualifications and I have got an invite.”

Hernandez was born in Moron, a city in central Cuba where football is as popular as the Cuban national sports of boxing and baseball, if not more so. 

He moved to Germany at an early age and was capped for them at youth level before going on to play in the lower leagues for Arminia Bielefeld, Werder Bremen II, Wolfsburg II and eventually for Eintracht Braunschweig in the 2.Bundesliga where he caught the eye of the Norwich City scouts.

In his first full season in England in 2018-19, Hernandez played a big part in Norwich’s promotion to the Premier League, finishing the season with eight goals and nine assists. He is still a fan favourite at the club and provided a useful squad option during their season in the Premier League in 2019-20.

An adductor injury kept him out for around three months of the current season, but he’s returned to action in 2021 as Norwich look to return to the top-flight after their relegation last year. They are currently on a six-game winning streak, 10 points clear of second-place Watford at the top of the table.

Hernandez is the only Cuban to have played in the Premier League and he looks set to return there this year. This time he could do so as a fully fledged Cuba international.

This is a big deal for Hernandez, and indeed for the Cuba national team who have always been reluctant to call up professional players playing outside of Cuba and Central America.

Another important player in this Cuba selection is Maikel Reyes. Though he might not be as recognisable a name as Hernandez, he made history in 2016 when he became the first Cuban player to move abroad to play football professionally while also maintaining ties with the national team.

Previously, Cuban players have defected in order to turn professional. 

This means a Cuban national team playing a fixture in the United States could lose half of its squad to defections as players looked for a way into the professional game. 

Until 2017, a “wet feet, dry feet” policy allowed Cubans who set foot on US soil to gain legal residency, which meant this happened more frequently.

One of the highest-profile defectors was Major League Soccer legend Oswaldo “Ozzie” Alonso, who remained in the US after the Cuban national team faced Honduras in a Gold Cup match in Houston in 2007. 

Alonso went on the have a long professional career in the United States, primarily with MLS side Seattle Sounders with whom he won a league title, a play-off title, and four US Open Cups (the US’s FA Cup equivalent). But his international career ended on that day in Houston in 2007.

The latest squad announcement could be seen as evidence of a change in mindset by the Cuban FA. This could also lead to a similar change in the outlook of any Cuban players unsure of their future as potential professional and international players.

As a senior player Hernandez has never been unsure as to where his national team allegiances lie, but he now gets the chance to realise this dream of representing Cuba.

He is joined in this squad by 28-year-old left-back Jorge Corrales who, though he didn’t defect, has not represented his country since he obtained a US visa in order to visit family in Miami in 2015. 

He’s gone on to play professionally for Miami FC, Chicago Fire, Montreal Impact and is currently with USL Championship side FC Tulsa in Oklahoma.

“I can’t explain or describe the feelings that I got when I saw my name on the list for Cuba,” Corrales told the USL website. 

“I have so many great memories from my time playing for the national team. This is a beautiful and exciting moment in my life. 

“I hope to be able to represent my national team for these matches and am looking forward to more moments like this in the future.”

Striker Joel Apezteguia of Sammarinese side Tre Flori could also make his international debut at the age of 37.

“I feel something unique, special, that happens only once in my life,” Apezteguia told local radio.

“I will seize the opportunity in every game. We are here to help Cuban football and give satisfaction to the people.”

At the other end of the age scale promising 21-year-old defender Carlos “Cavafe” Vazquez of Spanish Segunda Division B side Navalcarnero has also been called up. 

Brazil-based trio Sandy Sanchez, Sandro Cutino, and Sander Fernandez, who all play for Catarinense side Navegantes Esporte Clube, are also listed in the squad, making this the most international Cuba national team selection ever.

These call-ups are partly down to the fact these players have been playing regular football, and are therefore more match-ready than Cuban domestic players whose league has been on hold while Cuba deals with the Covid crisis.

The country has played a big role internationally during the pandemic, sending its doctors and virologists to places they are most needed, but the ongoing US blockade on the Caribbean nation has often meant certain supplies, such as PPE, hand sanitiser and basic vaccination distribution equipment, haven’t reached Cuba itself.

As a result, domestic football has understandably taken a back seat, but the national side is on the verge of a groundbreaking moment. 

It is fitting that a country that plays such a big role on the international stage is now seeing this internationalism represented in its football team.

Football could eventually go on to overtake baseball as the most popular sport in the country, and the game’s global appeal could help raise awareness of Cuba’s international outlook and the impact the damaging and constraining US blockade has on the island.

The smoothing of relations with players with a desire to represent Cuba, even if they are professional and play their football abroad could play a big part in this.

Should Hernandez et al take to the field against Guatemala on March 24 it will be a momentous occasion for Cuban football, regardless of the result.

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