HAVANA -- Normally, when the U.S. national team heads to a match anywhere in the world, time on the usually short, always mind-numbingly mundane bus ride from the airport to the hotel is passed playing cards, listening to music or sharing a few laughs.
Not this time.
Instead, the American players' eyes were glued to the windows as they took in a sight precious few Americans ever get to see: countless 1950s Chevys and Fords spewing smoke as they cruised past anti-George Bush billboards on the busy road that weaves its way from José Martí International Airport and into Cuba's bustling capital city.
"Everybody had their video cameras out," midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said Friday, the day before the U.S. would face Cuba in a historic World Cup qualifier. "We were trying to see what Cuba is all about."
The U.S. senior team has not played here since the summer of 1947. That was about 12 years before longtime Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista fled the island and Fidel Castro came to power, instituting communist rule that remains in place to this day. In 1962, the United States imposed a travel and trade embargo that, among other things, prevents Americans from legally visiting a country situated just 90 miles from home without a license issued by the Department of the Treasury.
Of course, the history between the two nations is a lot longer and more complicated that that, and the American players on this trip are far too young to fully understand everything that has happened during the past half-century.
But while they all truthfully insist that this is first and foremost a business trip and that what really matters is taking three points from their host, they also are fully aware that representing their country in this forbidden land is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It's obviously pretty disappointing that we can't come here normally, because it seems like a cool place," forward Landon Donovan said.
"The people have been tremendous. If we had showed up and they were booing us and had signs and were saying things and throwing stuff at us, it would have been different. But the people have been awesome here. "
Keeper Tim Howard had similar sentiments.
"I think it's a very, very nice country," he said. "I know there are a lot of things that surround Cuba-USA on all levels. But for the most part, the people have been friendly."
Even for the squad's youngest players, the magnitude of the event is not lost.
"It was interesting to see that big building with a picture of Che Guevara on it," said former Toronto FC and current Glasgow Rangers midfielder Mo Edu, 22.
"I played in Canada last year, and a lot of Canadians come here to visit. So I heard a lot of good things about how nice of a place it is.
"But because I'm American, the opportunity to come here doesn't come up that much. So it's a great opportunity to see what everyone else gets to see."
A day after arriving, midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who plays with former Cuban national team striker Maykel Galindo at Chivas USA, was still trying to get his head around where he was.
"I guess you don't really feel like you are making history when you're doing it," he said. "Hopefully I can look back on it one day and it'll be something I'll tell my kids about."
And did Galindo -- who claimed political asylum in the United States after defecting while on Gold Cup duty in Seattle three years ago -- offer his teammate any advice?
"He said, 'Good luck, papi,'" Kljestan said. "He said, 'I hope you score, but I hope Cuba wins.' He said, 'Say hi to my family if you see them.'"
Despite the warm welcome and the futbol diplomacy, Beasley, for one, was quick to remind his less experienced compatriots what the priority is.
"It's cool to be in Cuba, but honestly, for me, it's just another game," Beasley said. "We could be in Antarctica, and it would be the same. All that political stuff that's going on between the [United States] and Cuba, that has nothing to do with us. We're here to play a soccer match and get a good result."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Cuba
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2