Nostalgia: Cuba’s class of ’38 – the first Caribbean nation to play at World Cup

In the third installment of the World Cup reflection series, I rewind to 1938 when unfancied Cuba became the first Caribbean nation to appear at football’s global showpiece…

Pictured are most members of the 1938 Cuban squad. (pic credit: jtwnr)

It’s been almost 80 years since Cuba last qualified for the World Cup finals. The country’s participation in 1938 remains their only appearance, but they can always say with a great deal of satisfaction that they were the first Caribbean team to play on world football’s biggest stage.

Here’s some insight into how they got there, the make-up of the squad and who they faced at the tournament.

Straight World Cup entry having played no qualifying games

There were two main contributing factors as to why the Cubans received straight entry. Firstly, the tournament was being held during a period of great political tension and instability, mostly in Europe. World War II loomed large and many non-European teams had no intention of travelling to France, fearful of getting caught up in a political minefield. The likes of the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, El Salvador and Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname) all withdrew. Secondly, Uruguay and Argentina refused to play due to frustration with FIFA over the decision to stage the second successive World Cup in Europe. Italy had hosted four years previously. So, to cut a long story short, Cuba were one of the few teams left that were happy to travel and represent the Americas alongside Brazil. The Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia) flew the flag for Asia.  Indeed, the World Cup went on hiatus from 1934-50 because of World War II.

Springing a surprise against Romania in Round of 16

14 countries competed during the Round of 16 with Sweden’s opponent Austria having to withdraw due to being annexed by Germany as part of the Austrian Anschluss. Therefore the former were handed a walkover. Leones del Caribe‘s first World Cup game was against Romania at Stade Chapou, Toulouse in early June. Make no mistake: Romania were the favourites here. They had featured at the inaugural and 1934 World Cups and, just like Cuba, received straight entry to France because their qualifying play-off opponents Egypt pulled out. Their squad was much more experienced with players such as Iuliu Bodola, Ştefan Dobay and Nicolae Kovács heading into the competition boasting 30+ caps. Cuba, on the other hand, were a squad of young, amateur players. None of them had left their homeland before. At this point the country’s FA had formed only 14 years ago and this was their first taste of tournament football against international opposition.

How would they fare?

Video credit: dudd1982

The answer is pretty well. Cuba twice came from behind – Héctor Socorro and José Magriñá on target – to force extra time and it seemed as if manager José Tapia’s side were destined for a memorable victory when Socorro bagged his second goal on 103 minutes. Dobay spoiled the Cuban party, however, replying just two minutes later. The match ended 3-3 and a second leg would have to take place four days later to determine who advances.

Goalkeeper Benito Carvajales was arguably Cuba’s star man in the first leg. Yet Tapia decided to drop him for the return fixture, bringing in his understudy Juan Ayra. At a pre-match press conference, Carvajales backed Ayra and insisted: “The Romanian game has no more secrets for us. We shall score twice, they will only score once.” Remarkably, his prediction came true. Goals from Socorro and Tomás Fernández completed the Cuban comeback after Dobay had broken the deadlock. Ayra made some important saves at important moments. So Cuba progressed on an aggregate scoreline of 5-4.

Overwhelmed by ruthless Swedes in quarter-final

Getting past Romania was a great achievement. But next up Cuba were to play even stiffer opposition as they drew Sweden in the quarter-final. As mentioned earlier on, the Swedes had been given a walkover to the last eight and were fresh as a result. Cuba were a little leggy which was to be expected – to reproduce their Round of 16 heroics was always going to be a tall order. They fell 8-0 at Stade du Fort Carré, Antibes as Tore Keller and Gustav Wetterström grabbed the headlines, both scoring hat-tricks. Carvajales was restored as No.1 goalkeeper and despite saving a penalty, he could do nothing about the swiftness and efficiency of Sweden’s goals. The team’s left-footed forward Juan Tuñas, nicknamed El Romperredes (The Netbuster) because of his powerful shots, attributed the heavy defeat to circumstances beyond their control. Tuñas told FIFA in 2010: “We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game [against Sweden]. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Sweden lost 5-1 to Hungary in the semi-final and then fell 4-2 to Brazil in the third place play-off. Italy were crowned overall champions.

From left to right: Manuel Gil, José Antonio Rodríguez and Juan Tuñas. (pic credit: oncubamagazine)

Football in communist Cuba remains amateur. National players continue to use tournaments overseas to defect, predominantly escaping to the USA, as we saw most recently at the 2015 Gold Cup. The national team over the last year or so has on the whole been very underwhelming: crashing out of 2018 World Cup qualifying at the second round and even more humiliatingly, out of 2017 Caribbean Cup qualifiers at the first round. They were beaten 3-0 by non-FIFA side French Guiana much to the frustration of Cuba’s supporters and press.

Without question, though, reaching the World Cup is still the country’s biggest footballing, possibly sporting, achievement (even if circumstances favoured them in getting there). The Cuban team of 1938 helped introduce this region’s football to the rest of the world and set the tone for other Caribbean countries to follow in their footsteps.

That alone deserves respect.

By Nathan Carr

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Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave any constructive feedback in the comments box below. Meanwhile, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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