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Posted July 04, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Travel

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The Naples Rugby Football Club will compete today against the Cuba National Rugby Football team in Havana. The U.S. players say there’s no political agenda.


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`We wanted to go to Cuba because of the mystique of it.’

SEAN REDDICK, part-time rugby player, full-time trial lawyer

Almost every day for a month, Sean Reddick called an automated line at the U.S. Treasury Department, checking on the status of the Naples Rugby Football Club application for a license to play in Cuba.

The part-time amateur rugby player, full-time trial lawyer kept hearing: pending, pending, pending. But on April 20, the automated voice said: ``Approved.’‘

‘‘I was shocked, so I thought I’d better talk to a real person,’’ Reddick said. ``I had to ask: Are you kidding me? Or are you actually going to let us do this?’‘

Reddick made the call and learned it was official. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control—which enforces sanctions against countries, terrorist networks and drug traffickers around the world—granted the Naples club a license for a nine-day trip to play four games in Cuba.

So today, on the day America celebrates its independence, the 45-member Naples’ team—which includes three players from Miami-based clubs and four from the Key West club—will compete against the Cuba National Rugby Football team at the partially renovated Jose Marti Stadium in downtown Havana.

‘‘I bet there aren’t a bunch of teams playing on July Fourth in Havana. It’s Cuba versus Florida—you know it’s going to be competitive,’’ Reddick said with sweat pouring down his face during a break in an evening practice three weeks ago in Naples.

Competitive and potentially controversial: The Naples team has invited Cuban President Fidel Castro to attend.

Reddick insists there’s no political agenda.

‘‘We wanted to go to Cuba because of the mystique of it,’’ Reddick said. ``The fact that it’s forbidden and you’re not supposed to go there as an American and you have to jump through all these hoops to do it.’‘

Molly Millerwise, a Treasury Public Affairs spokesperson, said in an e-mail that more than a dozen U.S. sports teams have been permitted to travel to Cuba for athletic competitions within the past year.

But it’s rare for Florida-based teams to travel to Cuba. One of the last was the Maitland Sting, an AAU girls softball team from Melbourne, in 2001.

Most U.S. sports teams that have gone to the island nation have played Cuba’s national pastime of baseball. Most notable was Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, which had a home and away series against the Cuban National team in 1999.

The game in Baltimore, just 40 miles from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., drew anti-Castro demonstrations by protesters that included U.S. Rep. Lincoln Daz-Balart of Miami.

‘‘We’re just a bunch of dumb rugby players; I don’t know if we’re qualified to really get into the politics of it,’’ Reddick said.

``We’re going to have a good time and go to support those guys. Rugby is different. You go out and play hard and rough, but the tradition afterward—we call it the third half—is to get together and have a little party.’‘

After completing a tour in the Cayman Islands last year, the Naples team pondered where to play next and thought of Cuba out of curiosity. Nobody knew if Cubans played rugby, a sport similar to football but played without pads.

Reddick searched the Internet and found a Cuban rugby website. He contacted Chukin Chao Campanioni, director of Cuban Rugby Development, who extended the Naples team a formal invitation. Reddick put together the license application, which required a letter of official status from the sports’ governing body, USA Rugby.

Reddick originally had included joint training sessions in the application, but was told that that type of activity is not allowed. The Americans also must abide by strict travel restrictions, which limit how much they can spend in Cuba and how much luggage they can each bring (only 44 pounds of luggage, making the donation of equipment limited).

‘‘Rugby is not a popular sport in Cuba yet, but little by little Cubans are getting familiar with this game,’’ Campanioni wrote to The Herald via e-mail, explaining that his team, Indios Caribe, was founded in 1992 at Havana University by 12 students studying law, economics and language.

To help the Cubans promote rugby, Reddick said the Naples team officially invited Castro to today’s match in a letter dated April 26.

Reddick said he’s received no negative feedback, but real estate lawyer Wadie Zacca, a Jamaican who lives in Miami and was chosen team captain for the tour, said a few of his Cuban-American friends are not happy.

Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the anti-communist Cuban American National Foundation, said his organization supports ``purposeful travel that goes to support the dissident movement.’‘

But he’s upset that Castro was invited to watch.

‘‘What can I say? That’s disheartening,’’ Mesa said. ``That’s like inviting Osama bin Laden to view the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.’‘

While the Naples club acquired the license, Reddick invited players from all over Florida to play on the team to make it as competitive as possible. The scouting report on the Cuban team is that their players are fast, fit and skilled, although not as experienced.

Todd Cherner, a 10th-grade English teacher who plays for the Orlando Ironhorse Rugby Football Club, is the only player going of Cuban ancestry. His mother, Isa Tanenbaum, was born in Cuba and at age 7 fled to the United States with her family, shortly after Castro took power in 1959.

‘‘My family is pretty stoked about me going,’’ said Cherner, whose mother has never returned to visit Cuba. ``They want me to check out the family estate. My grandma sent me a book about Cuba.’‘

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