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31. 12. 2016

Cuba - sad fate of a big volleyball nation: From the golden 90’s to prison sentences

Source: Photo: notey.com, pinoyexchange.com, AFP/bbc.com

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Is it possible to imagine any major Men’s and Women’s volleyball club without players from Cuba? Do you know how many Cuban players are ranked in the Top 10 in the world on each position? If you don’t know the answers, they are NO and SO MANY!

 

The downfall of a Cuban volleyball, nationally speaking, is one of the saddest volleyball fates in the history of this sports discipline. And it had such a potential to rule the world for many years, even decades. From the moment volleyball was introduced to the Cuban Christians youth in 1905, only ten years after it was invented by William G. Morgan in Holyoke Massachusetts, USA, it has been steadily increasing. Especially the Women’s volleyball.

The Cuban Women’s Volleyball National 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 when they became 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 a major volleyball tournaments and were all the products of the regime in the country on whose political behavior can be discussed (for instance, there was a ban on professional sport in 1959) but who established a volleyball system that delivered 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 the recession that is just now starting to be relieved. Also, in the 80’s and 90’s Cuba was using sports 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 the baseball players).

With the beginning of the 21st century, and a bit earlier, when the Iron Curtain caused by the Cold War between East and West fell down, the boundaries got opened and Cuban players started to go overseas to play for some serious money. But, the old rules have remained in a 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 a 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 the citizenship of other countries and play for their national teams like Ángel Dennis and Osmany Juantorena (both at the 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 which was sentenced by the Cuban government (their Sports Ministry) in case of waving the national team.

The words of a former Cuba's Men 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 with all coaching staff members and to all the players,” Herrera said this a few months ago, 15 years after his team won the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, and revealed that 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 the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) for non-interference. It finally paid off. After years of opposition from many sides and under a huge pressure, the Cuban government voted on a new law that allowed Cuban athletes to sign contracts abroad, in 2013. Although the 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 the contract with a foreign club (P.A.O.K. Thessaloniki) without suffering any consequences in the 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. The Cuban Sports Ministry makes it worse maximally (like in the case of Salvador Hidalgo). Thus, both Men’s and Women’s Cuban National Teams have weak results due to the fact that, at the moment, only teenagers and very young players from domestic clubs (reinforced by several internationals) compete with the NT jersey (Melissa Vargas debuted at the age of 13 in 2013!).

 

Due to the regime in Cuba, which is still pretty much repressive, when Men’s players play tournaments around the world they are on the loose. It resulted in the rape accusations this summer when five Men’s NT players were sentenced to prison. Women’s National Team of Cuba did not even manage to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games, for the second time in a row, while Men’ NT has qualified but finished winless (0-5) and last-placed in their pool.

Is there the light at the end of a tunnel for the Cuban volleyball?

Maybe Cuban Federation should try to obtain permission from a government to allow a pre-2013 "sinners" to return to the national team. It seems like the only short-track solution. A long-track solution is to cherish and educate young forces like Osniel Rendón, Liván Osoria, Melissa Vargas... and give them a freedom of choice in their professional careers. Recently, the Cuban VF started to do big steps regarding this.

 

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