By Dylan Butler
PORTLAND, Oregon – Known for its boxers and cigars, Cuba has made great strides as a footballing nation of late.
The senior national team captured its first Caribbean Cup title in December and the Under-20 squad just competed in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
The next step, according to coach Walter Benitez, is success in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. And then, he hopes, the country’s first bid to the World Cup since 1938.
“We came to give a really good show,” Benitez said Monday before the team’s training session at JELD-WED Field. “We know that wasn’t the case the last Gold Cup. We lost all the three games by a big number of goals. Our objective this time around is to get past the group phase and move onto the next phase. If we’re able to do that, we’ll be very happy.”
While the objective is clear, reaching the knockout stage for the first time since 2003 will not be easy. Drawn into Group C, Cuba opens the Gold Cup Tuesday night against powerhouse Costa Rica and faces the United States at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, July 13.
“It’s a great opportunity to be playing at this tournament,” Cuban captain Jorge Luis Clavelo said. “I’m looking forward to showing what the team has to offer.”
The Cubans third match could prove critical to its possible advancement to the quarterfinals. With the United States and Costa Rica viewed as the favorites in the group, Cuba and Belize could battle for third and a berth into the knockout stage.
“The United States and Costa Rica are basically the teams to beat in this group, therefore the third game is going to be a decisive game,” Benitez said. “But it also depends on the prior two games on how well we do.”
History isn’t on Cuba’s side, especially in the Gold Cup. In 2011 the nations also met in the first game of the Group Stage and Costa Rica went on to win, 5-0. The Lions of the Caribbean lost by the same scoreline against Mexico and were drubbed by El Salvador, 6-1, in its final match.
This, according to Benitez, is a different Cuban team. He hopes that is proven on the field come Tuesday.
“The only way of changing history is not passing that information along to our players and leaving the past where it belongs, in the past,” Benitez added. “First and foremost, this is a different team with a different mentality. We are convinced we can come out with a good result, a tie or possibly a victory.”