The players of the New York Cosmos football team – with Pele at their helm – have arrived in Cuba ahead of an historic exhibition match.
With football diplomacy adding to the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility, the team landed late on Sunday on a private charter flight.
Former Cosmos star Pele, who in recent moths has struggled with illness, was reportedly swarmed with well-wishers as the players arrived at Jose Marti International Airport.
The plan for the Cosmos to play a game against the Cuban national team was announced earlier this year. But the team’s arrival comes just days after the US State Department confirmed it had removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror, a step that was seen a key part in improving relations.
“We are extremely privileged and honoured to accept this opportunity,” Cosmos chairman Seamus O'Brien had said ahead of Tuesday's game.
“This happened naturally, very quickly. There was instant reciprocity from both sides, wanting to do the game.”
These days, the Cosmos play in the second tier of US soccer, but the team has a storied past; in the 1970s they pulled off a coup by signing players such as Pele, Carlos Alberto Franz Beckenbauer. The team eventually folded in the 1980s, only to be reestablished in 2009.
The team is due to play Cuba’s national side on Tuesday evening, in a contest that will be broadcast across the region and in Cuba.
The Cosmos are the first US soccer team to play in Cuba since 1978 when the Chicago Sting played the Cuban National Team in an exhibition match in Havana. They had been the first team to visit since 1959.
They will also become the first professional US team of any sport to play in Cuba in 16 years. Cuban officials announced last week that the Baltimore Orioles - the last professional US team to play in Cuba back in 1999 - would return later this year to play against the Cuban national team.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that the last professional sports team to play in the US before an economic embargo was put in place in 1961 was the Rochester Red Wings, a baseball franchise that also had a team in Cuba, the Havana Sugar Kings.
But soon after the Red Wings’ final visit, in June 1960, the International League president ordered the Havana team to move to Jersey City because, he said at the time, the safety of visiting baseball personnel “is or might be endangered”.