By Howard Green

Norwich City’s glossy matchday programme for their home match against Stoke on February 13th is emblazoned with the face of fan favourite winger, Onel Hernández. Hernández, a famously bubbly and humorous character who has played for the Canaries since the beginning of the 2018/19 season, made a late substitute appearance against Stoke during Norwich’s 4-1 win. On this occasion it was a brief outing for the programme cover star – but recent developments in Hernández’s career are much more significant than this match might suggest.

Hernández was born in Cuba, moving to Germany as a child. Despite spending much of his early football career playing for German clubs and even making an appearance for the under-18 national team there, his intention was always to play for the Cuban national team. He is currently one of the only players of Cuban descent in professional football in Europe, and was the first Cuban ever to appear and score in the English Premier League. He is arguably the best male Cuban footballer currently playing, but he has never played for his country. Why?

In a biographical BBC Sports article on Hernández from July 2020, Gary Meenaghan purports to investigate this deceptively complex question. However, despite being informative on the level of Hernández’s personal life, the article reads as more of a subliminal stab at the Cuban way of life than an attempt to understand the historical reasons for Hernández’s absence in Cuban football. It makes no mention, for example, of the huge economic implications that the US blockade has had on all aspects of Cuban life, from politics to sport, for almost 60 years. The USA’s unilateral blockade policies, rejected by the UN General Assembly since 1992, are estimated to have cost Cuba over $5 billion (USD) in the year to March 2020 alone.

As fans and analysts, we should not be deceived by the illusion propagated by many of sport’s governing bodies that international politics has no bearing on sport

Football in Cuba does not receive the excessive investment that governments and the free market inject in other countries. It’s fair to assume that socialist Cuba would likely be more strict about accepting the dirty money that much of the football world indulges in. But there are two simpler and more significant causes of this lack of funding: football is not as popular in Cuba as in many other countries, and the restrictions imposed by the US blockade contribute significantly to impeding investment.

Another important part of this story that Meenaghan glosses over is defection. Over the years, many of the Cuban national teams’ best players have ended that phase of their careers abruptly by defecting to the United States. As has been the case in many other socialist countries past and present, highly qualified Cubans such as doctors occasionally defect in search of opportunities to have a better career than in their native country. This has been the case for many Cuban football players, male and female – Osvaldo Alonso, for example, had a decorated career in the United States with MLS club Seattle Sounders.

Although there have been success stories of Cuban footballers defecting to the US, as always those who haven’t had the same level of success often don’t have the platform to share their experience. This has been the case for many other professions, including Cuba’s medical internationalism program. In an attempt to mitigate the influence that the United States continues to have on Cuba, the Cuban FA bars defectors from playing for the country, however successful their careers abroad have been. Unlike normal international transfers, Cuban players have to give up their Cuban citizenship in order to play in the US. The decision to bar these defectors from playing for the national team is a harsh one which does not benefit Cuban football. Sport is not apolitical. As fans and analysts, we should not be deceived by the illusion propagated by many of sport’s governing bodies that international politics has no bearing on sport. Football is as much caught up in the security dilemma between nation-states as any other element of the fabric of our societies.

The significance of Onel Hernández playing for Cuba, whilst remaining a Norwich player, cannot be overstated

Although Hernández is a migrant, not a defector, this nervousness toward outside influence on Cuba is likely what has prevented him from representing the country. But things are changing. Hernández reveals in his programme interview that he has been invited to represent the country in the March World Cup qualifications against Curaçao and Guatemala, alongside a number of other Cubans who play in the US and Costa Rica.

As a Norwich supporter, it’s great to hear that Hernández is one step closer to achieving his lifelong dream. Greater involvement for one of the nation’s leading lights in the sport can only be positive for Cubans who have an interest in football, and may contribute to further investment in the sport in Cuba. More importantly, Hernández playing for Cuba is indicative that the country is very slowly beginning to grow out of its long isolation. From the left, moves like this are sometimes perceived as succumbing to economic imperialism. But other more significant policy decisions, such as Cuba’s recent unification of its dual currency system, prove that the country is not on the path to a return to capitalism. Small diplomatic maneuvers, like a change in stance on footballers who play elsewhere in the world, simply provide more opportunities for the country to be taken seriously on the world stage.

The significance of Onel Hernández playing for Cuba, whilst remaining a Norwich player, cannot be overstated. Hopefully, this will generate more influence for the Cuban solidarity movement in the UK and elsewhere. In just a few weeks, Hernández may be waving the Cuban flag on home soil as proudly as he did when Norwich won the Championship in 2019.

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