HAVANA—If anyone on the American side understood the symbolism of Friday night’s friendly between the US national team and Cuba, it was USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He said, in a post-game press conference, he understood first-hand the pain of impenetrable borders.
“I grew up in Germany. My father’s family lived in East Germany; I grew up in West Germany. I had to wait 25 years until the wall came down in ’89,” he told reporters in English, before his remarks went translated into Spanish. “My family was always divided. So I know what it means that people are not united, that there are different walls to break down.”
Indeed he chose to focus on the off-field significance of the match, from which the US emerged victorious, 2-0, after a physical, 0-0 first half and a host of yellow cards. Klinsmann seemed reticent to take much pleasure in the win, given the game’s punishing conditions – tropical heat, suffocating humidity, intermittent rain, and a pitch that could kindly be described as uneven and pocked.
“This game obviously had a special character. We’re very grateful to the Cuban federation for inviting us to play this friendly game, which for our players is something different, very special. We embraced that, and at the end, it was a tremendous experience,” Klinsmann said.
“But at the end of the day, the field was a field that was not playable. You couldn’t play on this field,” he continued. “I’m glad that it’s done, and that everyone’s healthy.”
Only one US player left the field with an injury, and one more or less unrelated to the grass. Defender Steve Birnbaum took a spike to the skull in a collision with Cuban forward Duxney Espinosa late in the match. Minutes later, he left the field with a bandage-wrapped head, to cheers from about 70 American Outlaws members supporting the US from the stands.
Still, though, when Spanish-language reporters asked Klinsmann to comment on the Cuban team’s first-half success – and on comparing the day’s squad to that of the 2015 Gold Cup – he brought the conversation back to the field conditions.
“Obviously for us, on that field, it’s impossible to get a higher rhythm and a higher pace. That’s when you make a difference,” he said. “You cannot compare [the Gold Cup and Friday’s friendly] because this game today was on a field that was not playable.”
Instead of focusing on the details of the 90 minutes, then, Klinsmann chose to look ahead to the USMNT’s next friendly, against New Zealand on Tuesday. He also looked forward to, hopefully, meeting the Cubans again for a friendly – but this time on US soil.
“Any time, absolutely,” he said of the possibility. “For [the players] I think it was a wonderful experience.
“I’m a big believer that sport builds bridges, always did,” he continued. “There’s no better way to get people kind of closer to each other with maybe different political backgrounds, different thinking than sport.”