Is it possible to imagine any major men’s and women’s volleyball club without Cuban players? Do you know how many Cuban players are ranked in Top 10 in the world on each position? If you don’t know the answers, they are: NO and SO MANY!
Downfall of Cuban volleyball, nationally speaking, is one of the saddest volleyball fates in the history of this sport. And it had such a potential to rule the world for many years, even decades. From the moment volleyball was introduced to Cuban christian youth in 1905, only ten years after it was invented by William G. Morgan in Holyoke Massachusetts, USA, it has been steadily increasing. Especially women’s volleyball.
Cuban Women’s National Volleyball Team was the first team to break the USSR’s and Japan’s domination in the world of women’s volleyball by winning the 1978 FIVB World Championship. Golden period of both women’s and men’s NT of Cuba was between 1990-2000: three-time Olympic Games winners, two-time FIVB World Championship winners, three-time FIVB World Cup winners and three-time FIVB World Grand Prix silver medalists (Women); two-time FIVB World Championship silver medalists, five-time FIVB World League silver medalists and one-time FIVB World Cup silver medalists (Men).
Names of Regla Bell, Mireya Luis, Magaly Carvajal, Hernández brothers (Ihosvany and Osvaldo), Leonel Marshall... celebrated the name of Cuba at major volleyball tournaments and were all a product of the regime in the country on whose political behavior can be discussed (for instance, ban of professional sport in 1959) but who established a volleyball system delivering many talented players. Many would say that Cuba as a country, including sport, benefited a lot from their relationship with the former USSR. When it fell in the early 90’s, the government of Cuba fell into recession that is just now starting to be relieved. Also, in the 80’s and 90’s Cuba was using sport as a political tool, to show power. Thus, there was no way for the athletes to go abroad unless to deflect (some athletes did, especially baseball players).
With the beginning of the 21st century, and a bit earlier, when Iron Curtain caused by the Cold War between East and West fell down, boundaries got opened and Cuban players started to go overseas to play for serious money. But, old rules have remained in the new time. Cuban players did not need to deflect anymore (some still continued to do so) but were not allowed to play for the national team if go overseas. Due to bad financial situation in the country, Cuban players were ready to wave national team for good in order to play in strong European and other championships (which was a condition by the Cuban Federation) and even get citizenship of other countries and play for their national teams like Ángel Dennis and Osmany Juantorena (both Italian Men's NT), Taismary Agüero (Italian Women's NT)... or Wilfredo León (Polish Men's NT) and Yoandy Leal (Brazilian Men's NT) in the near future. They were even ready to accept a two-year suspension from playing professionally sentenced by the Cuban government (Sport Minitrsy) in case of waving national team.
The words of a former Men’s head coach Gilberto Herrera describe this situation (financial and also regarding deflections) in the best possible way: “The team won 400,000 U.S. dollars but our government only gave us 32,000. We had to split that money to all coaching staff members and to all the players,” Herrera said this year, 15 years after his team won FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, and revealed the government discharged him from his duties as a punishment for the players who defected in 2001.
Many fans and volleyball institutions were raising their voices against this absurd rule and against International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) for non-interference. It finally paid off. After years of opposition from many sides and under huge pressure, Cuban government voted on a new law that allowed Cuban athletes to sign contracts abroad, in 2013. Although legislation was made public in 2013, it has been a whole year until it became alive. Javier Jiménez was the first Cuban volleyball player, male or female, to sign contract with foreign club (P.A.O.K. Thessaloniki) without suffering any consequences in a home country, which means he could keep playing for the national team. Osniel Melgarejo and Daymara Lescay followed his footsteps...
But what remains a huge problem is the fact that neither of players who went abroad before the new law in 2013 still do not have the right to play for the national team of Cuba and likely never will. The situation is even more difficult for those Cubans who want to represent other countries. Cuban Sport Ministry makes it worse maximally (like in the case of Salvador Hidalgo). Thus, both Men’s and Women’s Cuban National Teams have week results due to the fact mostly teenagers and very young players from domestic clubs (reinforced by several internationals) compete (Melissa Vargas debuted at the age of 13 in 2013!).
Due to still pretty much repressive regime in Cuba, when men’s players play tournaments around the world they are on the loose. It resulted in rape accusations this summer with five Men’s NT players being sentenced to prison. Women’s National Team of Cuba did not even manage to qualify for the Olympic Games, second time in a row while Men’ NT finished winless (0-5) and last-placed in their pool.
Is there the light at the end of a tunnel for Cuban volleyball?
Maybe, Cuban Federation should try to obtain permission from a government to allow pre-2013 ’sinners’ to return to the national team. It seems like the only short-track solution. Long-track solution is to cherish and educate young forces like Osniel Rendón, Liván Osoria, Melissa Vargas... and give them full freedom of choice in their professional careers. Recently, Cuban VF started to do big steps regarding this.
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