Posted February 12, 2014

Beyond the Reach of the Super Bowl: Trying to Find Football in Havana

Riffs, Travel

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At Almacenes San José, a giant tourist trap of a market on the Port of Havana in Cuba, 52-year-old Guillermo Peréz tried to sell me Ché T-shirts and minstrel cartoon ashtrays. It was the Monday before the Super Bowl, two weeks into my search for someone with whom to watch the Big Game, and I had just noticed Guillermo’s red, button-up Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt.

“I like your shirt,” I said. “Do you like American football?”

“Yes, of course.” He made the Heisman pose with a big smile. I told him I was trying to find a place to watch the game, and he suggested that I look in the outer Havana neighborhoods like Miramar and Vedado.

“Which team is your favorite?” I asked him.

“Hmm. What’s yours?” he equivocated.

“Patriots,” I said.

“Mine, too!”

I was skeptical.

Cuba is filled with fragments of America, both old and new. The Chevy Bel Airs and the indoor smoking and all the day-drinking recall a post-war U.S., while the pizza obsession and the teen-girl swoon over Justin Bieber underscore globalization’s inescapable grasp, despite more than fifty years of embargo.

Even so, America’s most popular sporting event, embraced by generations of Americans both old and new, hasn’t taken hold in a country just 90 miles to the south. In the hunt for a TV that would be tuned to the Super Bowl, “Do you like American football?” became my refrain, asked of anyone who displayed an affinity for sports: Taxi drivers, doctors, friendly-looking cops. Across the board, blank stares or kindly shrugs.

I knew—as we all do—that consumer choice is limited in Cuba, a country that has little access to the internet, and where TV broadcasts are controlled by the government. Yet I still took for granted that something on the scale of the Super Bowl would penetrate Cuba’s cultural barriers. Each time I was told of the situation, I would press: “Why are things like that?” The response was always the same:

Eso es lo que hay.”

“That’s just the way it is”: A typical Cuban response to the immovable bureaucracy they face on a daily basis.

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On the day of the game, desperate after a previous lead—that the game would be shown at “Casa del Castro” in Old Havana—fizzled, I heard back from Juan Miguel Rodriguez, a 46-year-old sports fanatic and laborer who I had met the week before while playing pick-up basketball. Juan Miguel met me at my place in a blue #31 Jason Sehorn Giants jersey. Even though he had no idea who Sehorn was, or the extent of the Giants’ disastrous season, I appreciated his enthusiasm. During our two-mile walk from my place in Miramar to 23 Street and G in Vedado, he peppered me with questions about the two teams. I did my best to explain the importance of the game’s outcome on Peyton Manning’s legacy. Juan Miguel knew nothing of the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer. He took my word for it.

Our destination, El Carmelo is not a sports bar. Rather, it’s one of Havana’s government-run CIMEX (the Cuban Export-Import Corporation) restaurants that serve candlelit food for Cuba’s affluent class. The average price of an entrée is around 5 convertible pesos—roughly $5. It may sound like a bargain, but a Cuban radiologist earns less than 30 pesos a month, and would likely never eat here without supplemental income. The waitstaff, mostly men, wore three-piece black-and-white uniforms and their hair in that distinctly Cuban style with the sides shorn to stubble and gel holding the rest at a jagged 45-degree angle.

Around 6 pm, the TV above the bar began playing pre-game highlights from Denver’s record-setting season. I was excited for myself and the few other Cubans I lured with promises of beer. Seated at the round tables with dark blue tablecloths, I counted eight white men and six Cubans.

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Shaun Hanrahan, before Peyton’s fall

The locals, it turned out, weren’t there for the game—they were finishing a late lunch or early dinner. The white guys at the other end of the restaurant were mostly Canadian Broncos fans. Bob Woodruff, 69, from Vancouver, Washington—the lone Seattle fan—was a retired family physician. He told me this was his first Super Bowl in Havana, though he had been visiting every year since 2005. Shaun Hanrahan, at the next table over, wore a Peyton Manning Colts jersey. The 56-year-old Hanrahan was originally from Calgary, Alberta, and had moved to Havana after he retired from teaching math to 4-9th graders this past June. I told him I was rooting for Seattle.

“Ha! Good luck,” he shouted in a heavy Calgary accent. “I woke up this morning and said, PAY-TONE MAH-NING!

Before the game began, Juan Miguel told me I might need to explain some of the game’s rules to him. “Not to worry,” I said. Then Denver’s first offensive snap shot into their own endzone for a safety and I quickly realized my innability to linearly and coherently explain the rules of American football. When one is not exposed to its peculiarities from a young age, it is a truly strange and mystifying game.

By the end of the first half, every table at the restaurant was filled with dining patrons who gave little mind to the handful of people who were watching the most American of spectacles. The Broncos were down 22-0, and Shaun Hanrahan looked only at the bottom of his Cuba Libre. His dejection seemed lost on the Cuban waiters, who paid no attention to the game and kept pleading with him to pay his portion of the bill.

When the game ended, Hanrahan slipped away into the cool night. Seattle had defeated Denver, 43-8, and Juan Miguel was unimpressed. For all the hype, Super Bowl XLVIII—the pinnacle of U.S. sporting events—understandably underwhelmed the Cubans at the bar. At a loss to explain its wild fanfare in the U.S., or why I had spend weeks trying to find a place to watch the game, I reached for the only explanation I had left.

“Eso es lo que hay.”


Isaac Eger is a Brooklyn-based journalist who looks for pick-up games around the world.

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