U.S. men shouldn't write off Castro's Cuba

In his advancing years, Fidel Castro has retreated from public life and turned his hand to writing editorials for Cuba's state-run press.

The Cuban dictator loves writing about his political enemy – the United States – and he loves writing about sports, but he has yet to combine the two by penning any comments on the U.S. men's soccer team's visit to his island for a 2010 World Cup qualifier this weekend.

Many of Castro's musings are unwittingly humorous, like when he insisted Cuban taekwondo star Angel Matos was right to kick a referee in the head following a controversial decision at the Olympic Games.

However, there is one statement from a recent Castro column that U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his team would do well to heed ahead of Saturday's game at Havana's Estadio Pedro Marrero.

"I do not hate other human beings," Castro wrote. "But I hate vanity, egocentricity, selfishness, arrogance, smugness, the absence of ethics and other tendencies human beings are born with."

Bradley's squad doesn't have too many prima donnas, but the coach knows better than anyone how dangerous taking a superiority complex into this game could be.

While No. 28 United States sits 64 places ahead of its opponent in the FIFA world rankings and by any reasonable soccer logic should rack up a comfortable victory, this is not a foregone conclusion.

"There have been many upset results in qualifying games before," Bradley said. "This game has a slightly different feel to it and we have to adapt and make sure we come away with a good result."

Based on history, it is almost certain several Cuban players will plan to defect when the teams meet again in Washington on October 11. For those Cubans with wide-eyed dreams of professional contracts, the trip will be their shop window – a chance to impress and be rewarded with a new career to go along with hopes of a new life.

Also, while the second stage of qualifying for the U.S. began with a welcome victory in Guatemala, this part of the road to South Africa 2010 is arguably littered with more potholes than the final section of qualifying.

Any slip-ups here could inject a sense of nervousness into what should be a routine passage through to the next phase, where four out of six teams get to the World Cup and a 10-match schedule is more forgiving with unforeseen stumbles.

"This stage is very tricky because the slightest mistake can really hurt you," Bradley said. "You can't afford to lose concentration at any time and we will reinforce that with the players."

As much as Bradley has tried to defuse the political subplot involved in the game, there is no denying the fractured relations between the U.S. and Cuba have added an extra level of intrigue.

A long-standing travel embargo means no fans will be on hand to cheer the U.S., while Cuba will be backed by a passionate and patriotic crowd.

"There's a bit of rivalry due to the problem of our two countries," Cuba goalkeeper Guadalupe Quintero said. "As Cubans we have to at least defend our image here in our home field, the flag is the main thing. Winning would be very important for the people."

However, the U.S. squad should have more than enough experience to cope with the unusual environment. Youngsters Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu have been left out to establish themselves with their new European clubs, raising the average age of the team.

"I expect any time you go to any country and play against their team that they are not going to be too happy towards to you," forward Clint Dempsey said. "They want their team to win.

"It doesn't matter who you are playing, what country you are in, everyone's going to be against you. We are used to that, we have that even at home sometimes with more fans for the other team when we play Mexico."

Bradley's camp experienced some problems studying the Cuban players and tactics, after a U.S. scout was refused permission to attend Cuba's qualifying defeat against Trinidad and Tobago last month.

Even so, the Americans, provided they are switched on and motivated, should overpower their underdog opponent, clinch three points and deny a certain columnist the opportunity to rejoice in a joyous victory for his nation.