Cuba Set to Play USA in World Cup Qualifier

Campaign News | Wednesday, 28 November 2007

By Mark Zeigler, Union-Tribune

Sports bodies go to great lengths to keep international politics from seeping onto the athletic field, but the pingpong balls of fate conspired yesterday to do just that at the qualifying draw for soccer's 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The United States has been on bad terms with Cuba for more than a half-century.

They'll likely meet in the semifinal round of the CONCACAF region's qualifying tournament, which would include a match in Cuba for the first time since Castro took over in the late 1950s.

North and South Korea have endured a tense separation since the Korean War ended in a 1953 armistice. They wound up in the same group in Asian qualifying and will play on each other's soil

The draw, held in Durban, decided the preliminary groupings for 165 teams from four continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe and CONCACAF.

The day's biggest gasp came when England drew into the same group as Croatia, just four days after Croatia's dramatic 3-2 win at London's Wembley Stadium eliminated England from qualifications for the 2008 European Championships and led to the dismissal of coach Steve McClaren.

U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a veteran of four World Cups, pulled out the ping-pong ball that aligned the Americans with their Caribbean adversaries.

They have played once in Cuba, a 5-2 U.S. loss in Havana in 1947. They have met six times since, twice in Mexico City in qualifying for the 1950 World Cup and four times in the United States over the past decade.

Cuba has only recently focused on soccer with the same zeal that it does other sports, but it has improved rapidly.

Just ask former U.S. coach Steve Sampson. He was coach of Costa Rica in 2004 when the Ticos drew Cuba in the early rounds of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. After a pair of ties, Sampson was fired.

The Americans first must get past the winner of Barbados-Dominica in a two-leg series next June. Next comes a four-team semifinal group that figures to include Cuba, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The top two teams from that advance to the six-team final round, from which the top three automatically get berths in South Africa in 2010.

“Playing in Cuba would be a new experience,” U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra told The Associated Press. “From difficult conditions to hostile fans, you can't take any of these games for granted.”

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