Cuba FA signs for Bonn SC

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The Independent Online
LATIN FEVER is sweeping Bonn. The restaurant by the stadium is adding spice to its Wurst in preparation for "Caribbean night", the local girls are learning salsa, and the lads are practising "Ole!"

One bright Sunday in the coming weeks, the 400 fans who regularly lose themselves on the terraces will be cheering a bunch of Cuban footballers, and life in the North Rhine League will never be the same again.

The Cubans may not be terribly well known to the world, but they did go down to an honourable 2-0 defeat to Brazil in Havana last year, and lost by the same score to the United States. They were playing in national colours then. From next month, however, the same players are set to wear the shirt of Bonner SC, the amateur team in 13th position in a league two divisions below the Bundesliga's orbit.

It is hard to illustrate Bonner's lowliness in British terms: suffice it to say that to compare the North Rhine League to the Vauxhall Conference would be a slur on the Englishmen.

And yet this is where the Cubans will be playing, provided Luis Hernandez, president of the country's Football Association, signs on the dotted line this week. He arrived on Friday and will be inspecting facilities in the coming days.

Money is not a problem. "The Cubans don't want any," explains Gerhard Demann, the German club's commercial director. The players are all "amateurs", and are here to learn. The whole team will be housed in a disused hotel outside Bonn, each player will receive DM1,000 (about pounds 350) "pocket money" a month, plus four or five free trips home a year. To make sure they are comfortable, the 15-man squad will be accompanied by two Cuban coaches, a physio, an interpreter and a cook.

There is, of course, a financial dimension to the deal, but it cannot be stated for fear of offending Cuba's communist officialdom. The idea of bringing a few players from the island stemmed from Mr Demann's holiday in Cuba, where he observed poor conditions in the country's least favourite sport. There are only 169 football teams in Cuba, and most of them do not have real balls or boots.

The Bonners are offering to help. The Cuban FA will receive gifts of kit and balls, and the German hosts undertake to line up midweek friendlies for the squad. Liechtenstein and Switzerland are likely to be the first opponents, but even the great Bayern Munich have indicated that they fancy a kickabout. "The aim is to prepare them for the next Caribbean Cup, and give Jamaica a hard time in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup," says Hans Viol, Bonner's chairman.

Mr Viol, a local businessman who took over the club three years ago with debts of DM2.5m, has lofty ambitions and deep pockets. Yet even he has been taken aback by the recent turn of events. Initially, he only wanted to sign three or four Cubans, but Havana insisted on a package deal. One of the Cuban conditions is that the squad must stay together. For this reason, and partly because of ideological problems with "professionalism", they had in the past turned away Olympic Marseille.

Some of the players are said to be pretty good. "Physically, they are very strong and technically gifted," Mr Viol says. "Obviously, what they lack is tactical awareness and discipline." And where better to learn those attributes than at a German club? Bonner SC may not be the best of them, but it has some very useful players. For instance, anyone who has seen the team captain, Gregor Eibl, in action attests that he is an outstanding chartered surveyor.

Some of the plumbers, though, may have difficulties getting into the team when the 15 members of the Cuban national squad take their place on the bench. Mr Viol intends to be fair with the lads, and initially will not put more than five or six into the side. Not that he has any qualms about the other "amateur" clubs in the league, who, he claims, are capable of fielding 11 foreigners. The Cuban enterprise will cost the club about DM500,000 a year, but Mr Viol says the Caribbeans still work out cheaper than German amateurs, because of the tax complications.

It's dog eat dog in the North Rhine League, and the Bonners hold a grudge. They were relegated here last year because of a "fix" in the final match involving two other teams. "I have no mercy for anyone, because we were definitely cheated out of the league," Mr Viol says. The other teams had better watch out, or start scouring the planet themselves.