Arch-rivals Mexico and USA will be favourites when the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on Sunday 5th June. El Tri and the Yanks have won eight of the ten previous competitions, a biennial cup of nations for North, Central America and the Caribbean zone. Mexico are defending champions, having humiliated the host USA two years ago with a 5-0 hammering in the final in New Jersey. Back then, however, both the Mexicans and the USA took second-string sides to the Gold Cup and, as a result, the tournament was not the spectacle it might have been. This time out, spread across 13 venues in the United States, there will be no depleted squads, no excuses and no half measures as the 12 participating nations vie for a single place at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The 3-week tournament will host most of Europe’s football stars and I want to have a look at the key men who a greater chance of setting the tournament alight and making it a spectacle. Group A will see teams like Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Cuba lock horns against each other for the title.
Cuba has a long-standing football tradition, although the sport has never been as popular there as baseball. Cuba reached the second round of the 1938 FIFA World Cup by beating Romania, their only appearance at the tournament.
In recent years, Cuban football has seen an improvement in fortunes. They reached the Quarter-finals of the 2003 Gold Cup (where they were beaten by the USA) by defeating Canada 2-0 in the Group Stage. During the 2006 World Cup qualifiers Cuba faced Costa Rica and were only eliminated on away goals. They held Costa Rica to a draw in Havana 2-2 and later battled it out for a 1-1 draw in Costa Rica.
During the 2010 World Cup qualifiers Cuba faced Antigua y Barbuda and drew 3-3 against Antigua y Barbuda. Later in Pedro Marreo Cuba won 4-1 to advance to the semi finals of the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers. Cuba was with United States, Trinidad y Tobago and Guatemala. Cuba finished in the third place with only a victory against Guatemala. They finished in third place in the Caribbean Cup 2010 to take a place in Gold Cup 2011.This is how they Qualified: (beat Dominica 4-2, tied Suriname 3-3, tied Antigua and Barbuda 0-0, beat Trinidad and Tobago 2-0, beat Martinique 1-0, tied Grenada 0-0, lost to Guadeloupe 2-1, beat Grenada 1-0)
The Cubans can upset the giants in the group if the likes of Mexico and Costa Rica underestimate them. They also boast one of the worlds’ most capped players in goalkeeper Odelín Molina who has represented his country since 1996.
As well as Cuban athletes in other sports, a number of football players have made the move to the United States in recent years. In fact, perhaps the biggest question surrounding Cuba’s appearance in the Gold Cup involves which players, if any, will defect to the US . During the 2002 Gold Cup in Los Angeles, 2 Cuban players chose to remain in the United StatesIn 2005, Maykel Galindo (then 24 years old with 12 goals in 35 caps) defected during the Gold Cup, eventually landing with the Seattle Sounders before making his way to a fairly-decent run with Chivas USA (he is currently with FC Dallas). In 2007, star striker Lester Moré and budding central midfielder Osvaldo Alonso defected during the tournament (Alonso eventually made his way to the new incarnation of Sounders).In 2008 seven players of the U-23 national football team did likewise and finally in 2008, 2 days before the World Cup Qualifier vs. the USA, 2 more athletes defected again.
Cuba exhibited a balanced attack during the Caribbean Cup. Eight different players scored during the tournament, with two of them— Reysander Fernández and forward Roberto Linares– returning for the Gold Cup.
Let’s have a look at the players who can help Cuba better their previous performances at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. All the players play their football in Cuba. Football is growing in Cuba with the “Happy Soccer” of Raul González Triana. This is Raúl González Triana’s 23 man squad for the tournament:
Goalkeepers: Odelín Molina (Villa Clara), Odisnel Cooper (Camagüey), Julio Pichardo (Las Tunas)
Defenders: ) Yénier Márquez (Villa Clara), Hánier Dranguet (Guantánamo), Jorge Luís Clavelo (Villa Clara) , Aliannis Urgellés (Guantánamo), Reysander Fernández (Ciego de Ávila)
Midfielders: Yoel Colomé (Ciudad de La Habana), Francisco Carrazana (Cienfuegos) , Jaime Colomé (Ciudad de La Habana) , Dagoberto Quesada (Camagüey), Carlos Francisco (Santiago de Cuba), Alberto Gómez (Guantánamo), Marcel Hernández (Ciudad de La Habana)
Strikers: Alain Cervantes (Ciego de Ávila), Roberto Linares (Villa Clara),Yaudel Lahera (Ciudad de La Habana),Yosniel Mesa (Cienfuegos), Ariel Martínez (Sancti Spíritus),Sander Fernández (Ciego de Ávila)
Molina, Marquez and Linares are the men who the whole nation is looking up to.
Goalkeeper Odelín Molina Hernández is Cuba’s most capped player. The FC Villa Clara goalkeeper made his international debut in 1996.The outstanding Cuban ‘keeper, who obtained 103 international caps with his National Team, has entered the symbolic but exclusive circle of players with a Century of Caps.He will likely be in the net throughout this tournament.He started the final five Caribbean Cup matches.
The experienced goalkeeper will be put to the test by giants such as Mexico and Costa Rica and it will be his duty to organize his back four. Molina won’t have a problem organizing his defenders because as the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. The problem now is if he can prevent Chicharito and Ruiz from putting the ball behind his net.At least he will make sure there won’t be a cricket score.
Molina’s teammate at club level, Yénier Márquez Molina is also one of the senior members of the team. The FC Villa Clara defender made his international debut in 2000, and has 100 caps to date, including 14 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.
The 32 year old defender will bring stability to the defence.Veteran Yénier Márquez has also shown a tendency to score, with ten goals for his country. I just wonder how he will be able to cope with the Mexican strike force.
FC Villa Clara striker Roberto Linares is Cuba’s key man. During 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign he scored four goals in seven matches. This Cuba team lost just once in the Caribbean Cup, keeping five clean sheets.
Linares has been a star for the team in the past, collecting a hat trick in World Cup qualifying against Antigua and Barbuda in 2008 and the lone goal to clinch 3rd place against Grenada. Mexico and Costa Rica have to watch out for the 25 year old striker because he can punish them.