NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Cosmos have arranged a sporting step in the move toward normalizing relations with Cuba by announcing on Monday a June 2 match in Havana against the Cuba national soccer team.
Three months after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro vowed to restore diplomatic ties severed 54 years ago, the Cosmos announced plans to be the first U.S. professional soccer club team to play in Cuba since 1978.
"We had several trips to Washington, my colleagues met with the State Department officials responsible and they've been truly fantastic, a lot of support," said Seamus O'Brien, chairman of the North American Soccer League club.
Attending the news conference in midtown Manhattan were U.S. Congressmen Charles Rangel and Gregory Meeks.
O'Brien, who in December announced the signing of Spanish star Raul to the second incarnation of the Cosmos, said Cuba would be the 42nd country they will play in after recent trips to Hong Kong and El Salvador.
"It's not just what you do in your own country. It's a global game," said O'Brien. "It's a global economy and we want to be a part of it."
The Cosmos and the NASL reformed in 2013 after the league was shuttered in 1984.
Cuban national coach Walter Benitez said it was a privilege to play against the Cosmos, who became a worldwide draw in the 1970s with players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto.
"This will be a historical match and we will enjoy it," Benitez said through a translator, adding that he is looking forward to "a competitive match that will support our efforts to get to the next level."
Cuba, where baseball reigns as the national sport, has been growing as a soccer country, claiming their first Caribbean Cup in 2012 after defeating 10-times winner Trinidad & Tobago, and reached quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013.
O'Brien said the team planned on chartering a plane to travel to Cuba for the match, which will be televised.
"We are planning at the moment to go down on Sunday, have full training Monday, light training Tuesday, the game's on Tuesday night and come back Wednesday."
Editing by Frank Pingue