March 9, 2015 / 7:34 PM / 4 years ago

Cuba approves exhibition soccer match with New York Cosmos

HAVANA (Reuters) - The New York Cosmos have won approval to play the Cuban national soccer team in what would be the first professional sports team visit to the Caribbean island nation since December’s rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.

The match in Havana on June 2 would be among the most important appearances by a U.S. team since Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition in Havana in 1999.

“The authorities have approved the game to be played. It’s almost certain to happen,” an official with the Football Association of Cuba told Reuters on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to association policy.

The Cosmos, of the second-tier North American Soccer League, declined to confirm the match, saying only in a statement that “we have had meaningful dialogue with the Cuban Federation, and will provide further information in due course.”

Among the details to be worked out is improving field conditions at Havana’s 28,000-seat Pedro Marrero Stadium, Cuba’s main soccer venue, the Cuban official said.

The Cosmos reached out to Cuba even before the joint U.S.-Cuban announcement on Dec. 17 that the longtime adversaries would restore diplomatic relations, the Cuban official said.

The Cosmos of today are a revival of the team from the 1970s and ‘80s that invigorated U.S. soccer by signing international stars such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer at the end of their careers.

Today the face of the franchise is former Real Madrid and Spain captain Raul Gonzalez, 37.

The old Cosmos from a previous incarnation of the North American Soccer League elevated U.S. soccer from a pastime for children to big-time sports, filling the old Giants Stadium for games and drawing celebrity fans such as Mick Jagger.But when the debt-ridden NASL folded in the 1980s, the dream of the Cosmos becoming an established force in the global game died with it.

The NASL was re-established in late 2009 as the second tier of U.S. club football below Major League Soccer (MLS).

Though baseball remains Cuba’s national sport, soccer is gaining in popularity with FC Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys a common site. While a world power in baseball, Cuba has not played in a soccer World Cup since 1938.

The Chicago Sting of the old NASL played an exhibition against the Cuban national soccer team in Havana in 1978.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown

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