The Cuban National Team will enter the fourteenth edition of the World League for the second straight year with a very young squad and modest hopes for the coming tournament. Although some of the players already have a season to their credit and the team is hopeful of a better performance than last year, the Caribbean unit may still not be good enough to rejoin the elite positions they held in the late 1990's.
Nevertheless, the team, under the tutorage of Eliseo Ramos since last year, will go to this year's event with something in their favor - one more year of full preparation and the experience of the World Championship in Argentina last October. They have more mature players now, but know the task of qualifying in any pool won't be easy, bearing in mind the evident progress of the established teams and improvement of others already nudging the world elite.
"We know the strength of the other teams in our pool (Yugoslavia, Netherlands and China) and we don't forget that Yugoslavia is the Olympic champion and Netherlands have a traditionally front line squad," said Ramos, 51, and with more than 20 years as volleyball coach. "But we have the chance to play well, better than last year, and that is our main goal."
"After the World Championship," he added, "our guys have improved their self-confidence and while young, they have a lot of talent; good athletic ability, height and technique. What can betray our hopes is the lack of experience, because they still have to develop their competitive level."
Twelve players from last year's edition are back with the Cuban jersey, with five members chosen from the First National Olympiad. Three of them - middle-blocker Darien Ferrer and wing-spikers Osmani Juantorena and Charles Vinent - crack the lofty 2-meter mark and they are between 17-19 year old.
Other known players still in the Cuban Team are opposite Raydel Poey, setter Javier Gonzalez, who replaces Alain Roca as starter, libero Javier Brito and Yasser Portuondo and Yosleider Cala. Captain Pavel Pimienta, the 2.04cm power hitter, and opposite Tomas Aldazabal, are the only ones of last year's team with several season's of World League experience in their resume.
"Our team really is still work-in-progress, but it does not mean that we are not thinking of the battle to qualify in our pool where China is also a team that came back in 2002 after four years out," said Ramos, adding "Our guys are well prepared and very motivated."
The Cuban team has scheduled a series of warm-up contests between April and May against Greece and Portugal, the two teams that competed for the seventh place at the 2002 World Champions, with Greece prevailing. These will be the only preparation games against foreign squads before the intercontinental round matches. Story by Lissette Ricardo Torres, Havana, Cuba and Roosevelt Comarazamy, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic