Santos Laguna will play a historic friendly against Cuba's national team in Havana this Saturday, with club president Alejandro Irarragorri hoping it could lead to stronger ties between the island and the Torreon-based Liga MX side.
The game -- billed as the Copa AeroMexico -- will be shown live on ESPN in Latin America and comes at a time when the question of whether Cuba's political opening up will be replicated in sports, especially soccer, is being asked.
At present, Cuba's national team players are all based on the Caribbean island in the domestic league, although there has been important advances at youth level and signs that there is a good crop of players coming through.
Following the New York Cosmos' trip to Havana last June, Santos Laguna is hoping to reap rewards both on and off the field. Ahead of the journey, ESPN FC spoke over the phone with Los Guerreros president Irarragorri to discuss what it means to him personally and just what the future could bring for the relationship.
A club like Santos Laguna must have many options during international breaks, like lucrative friendlies in the United States or elsewhere. What was the appeal of playing in Cuba?
Alejandro Irarragorri: There are a lot of reasons. I believe this is a historic time for our continent and it is a historic moment for Cuba, in terms of the opening up. I believe that Mexico and Cuba have had very important relations historically and now I think, without any doubt, there are a lot of things that Mexico and Cuba can construct moving forward. This week Cuban president Raul Castro is in Mexico meeting president (Enrique) Pena Nieto and it will surely be the start of many important things.
What does each side hope to gain from the sporting side of the relationship? Is this relationship between Cuba and Santos Laguna going to continue past Saturday's friendly?
AI: We know and understand what Cuba has done in applied science in sports ... in football we consider that the level of education in Cuba -- very high in comparison even to world leaders -- means there is a very big potential for developing players. In talks and meetings we have with the president of the Cuban federation and with the Cuban association, they realize that they have to advance in the technical and tactical side, in constructing a methodology that enables them to exploit the potential they have.
We had the fortune of being able to count on great friends in other clubs, with people that helped us to grow, to create and prepare our methodology, to strengthen all areas of the club and the only way we can pay them back is by helping other football (institutions) that require it. Cuban football is asking and we are delighted to be able to collaborate. Many of our professionals will be spending time in Cuba and many of the coaches and football specialists in Cuba will be coming to Territorio Santos Modelo (Santos' complex) to prepare themselves.
There has been a lot of talk about young Cuban talent like Arichel Hernandez and Maykel Reyes and how they would do in a professional league. Obviously it is difficult because of the political situation in Cuba, but is they any possibility of Cuban players one day playing for Santos Laguna?
AI: I don't have the slightest doubt there is. I repeat: I think that in football there is a cognitive level. Education levels play an important role and of course the physical part is undoubtedly important; Cuba meets those two important characteristics.
- ClubSantosLaguna (@ClubSantosEn) November 8, 2015
(Signing players) isn't the priority and it isn't something we are looking to capitalize on in the short term, but why not? In the future I'm sure there'll be a way of being able to counting on important, well-developed players who will be good professionals in terms of their footballing careers.
Maybe people don't know that your father is Cuban. How has that influenced the trip and does it make it even more special for you?
AI: Without doubt there is a personal and emotional part because my father is Cuban and obviously I will always be thankful for my roots. It's a country that transmits a lot of joy, which is very strong and has important opportunities looking to the future.
When it comes to Cuba, there always seem to be critics when teams or foreign groups visit the island. Have you received any negative reactions?
AI: In football, you hear critics every day, for good and for bad. You have to remain deaf and concentrate on the things you can control, like our strategy, plans, reasoning. I understand there are distinct ways of thinking and of seeing things (regarding Cuba), but I believe that the opening of Cuba to the world is slow but steady and I'm sure that it will contribute to the development of Latin America in many ways and it is something in which we definitely want to participate.
When did the idea of the trip to Cuba begin?
AI: Probably eight months ago. We began dialogues, we had a lot of meeting, trips and reciprocal visits and it was decided a few months ago. Then with the help of AeroMexico -- because it'll be the Copa AeroMexico -- ESPN as the TV provider responsible for transmitting the game on all the American continent, we were able to announce it.
Aside from the game in Cuba, how do you sum up the Apertura 2015 season? Obviously Santos are still reigning champions, but Pedro Caixinha left halfway through and now Spaniard Pako Ayestaran is in charge.
AI: It was been a very difficult tournament, completely outside of our plan and the reality is that changing coach halfway through a tournament isn't ideal. It is difficult because on one hand you have the joy of being Campeon de Campeones in Frisco and then the CONCACAF (Champions League), in which we are in the quarterfinals. Then you have a (domestic league) tournament, which has been way below what we hoped and what our fans deserve.
Will there be major changes at Santos this offseason?
AI: We have to carry out a profound analysis, which we are doing now. We have to be self-critical and take responsibility for many decisions that weren't correct. That analysis will allow us in coming weeks to take actions about the short and medium term future of our squad.