Still a taste of politics in Gold Cup But Cubans' participation unlikely to stir Kissinger

January 31, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Henry Kissinger, Nobel Prize-winner and a lifetime soccer fan, can relax with the fourth CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament opening tomorrow in Oakland, Calif.

The ex-Secretary of State won't have to wangle visas from his old State Department digs for foreign players to get into this country, which he did two years ago after a White House-Congress budget battle shut down the government.

With Cuba playing the U.S. national team tomorrow for the first time in 49 years, that doesn't mean a little diplomacy won't be needed. Cuban athletes seem prone to defecting once they hit American shores these days.

Sunday's U.S.-Cuba match (7 p.m. EST) will be the nightcap of an opening doubleheader, with Honduras also playing Trinidad and Tobago.

The U.S. team, one of four World Cup finalists tuning up in the 10-team tournament, also will play Costa Rica, a hot rival, in Oakland on Feb. 7. Other first-round games will be in Los Angeles and Miami.

Assuming the U.S. squad advances, Jamaica seems a likely semifinal opponent Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, a grudge match if it occurs. The other semifinal will be Feb. 12, and the championship and third-place games are scheduled for Feb. 15, all in Los Angeles.

No Baltimore-area cable television company offers Fox Sports Net or Telemundo, which will carry all games.

The Gold Cup is one of several region-championship tournaments, this one for the 34 soccer nations in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The tournament began in 1991 and was adjusted to even-numbered years after 1993. Brazil, a guest entry, won in 1996 before 88,155 in rain-soaked Los Angeles.

With Brazil, a big draw whenever it plays, and this region's three World Cup finalists -- the United States, Mexico and Jamaica -- competing, the final four games could be quite competitive.

U.S. coach Steve Sampson will field mixed squads, depending on how far his team advances, with his European-based starters staying there initially.

Jamaica also has left its top players in England. And Brazil's Ronaldo, at 21 already FIFA's World Player of the Year twice, will stay with Inter Milan in Italy's Serie A.

Mexico, winner of two of the first three Gold Cups, is looking for new chemistry under Manuel Lapuente, in his second tour as coach. He quit after the United States beat his team, 2-0, in 1991.

Tomorrow, Cuba would seem to be a walkover for the more experienced Americans. Cuba lost five of its six semifinal-round World Cup qualifiers, scoring four goals, yielding 16.

Cuba and the United States last met in September 1949 -- a tie and a 5-2 U.S. win in World Cup qualifiers played in Mexico City.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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