The 11 players who lined up for Cuba against Romania in Toulouse on 9 June 1938 had never been outside their country before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet, having ventured halfway across the world, they would spring the first upset of that year's FIFA World Cup™ in France, defying the odds to beat the eastern Europeans 2-1 in a first-round replay.
The only member of that victorious side still alive today is Juan Tunas, the oldest surviving FIFA World Cup participant in the CONCACAF region. Known during his playing days as 'El Romperredes' (The Netbuster), the 93-year-old welcomed FIFA.com to his home in Mexico City. And with the aid of his son Manuel, he recalled the day when the Caribbean outsiders stunned the football world.
“I learned to play in the squares of Havana, with the fishermen,” said the former forward, going back to his early days. “Football was very popular on the island back then, and the players that went to France were all of Spanish ancestry.”
Feeling seasick he decided to open the porthole in his cabin to get some fresh air. What he didn’t know was that the cabin was actually below the waterline - the room was absolutely flooded!
Tunas began his career at a club called Juventud Asturiana, which, like virtually all of the island’s teams, had its roots in Havana’s large Spanish community. The youngster had a voracious appetite for scoring goals, although there is one very special strike that stands out from the rest. Using his fearsome left foot to devastating effect, Tunas actually broke the net with one of his thunderbolts in a 1941 match against Puentes Grandes - a feat that would earn him his distinctive nickname.
Yet perhaps the most memorable moment of his career came three years earlier, when he and his team-mates left their island home for the first time to take on the rest of the world in France.
“They were a team of friends who’d never been out of Cuba before,” explained his son Manuel, taking up the story. “My father had a bit of a mishap on the way over. Feeling seasick one night he decided to open the porthole in his cabin to get some fresh air. What he didn’t know was that the cabin was actually below the waterline. The room was absolutely flooded!”
After drawing 3-3 with the Romanians in their opening game, the Cubans earned a 2-1 win in the replay to set up a second-round tie with Sweden. “We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game,” explained Juan. “But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over. We ended up losing 8-0,” he added, able to smile about it after all these years.
Following that abrupt end to his FIFA World Cup adventure, Tunas returned home to set new scoring records in the national league. His prowess in front of goal had not gone unnoticed on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, where the directors of the then-mighty Mexican outfit Real Club Espana decided to take a gamble on the Cuban.
“When he arrived at the club they were bottom of the league,” explained Manuel, showing one of the many newspaper cuttings he has collected on his father’s career. “In the end though, they won the championship and he scored in the season-ending final too.”
According to the goalscorer himself, it was the finest strike of his career. “I was in the area when this high ball came to me,” he said, travelling back 70 years in time. “I just hit it on the volley and gave the keeper no chance. It was a fantastic goal.”
During his time in the Mexican top flight, the intrepid Tunas rubbed shoulders with the finest players in Latin America, among them legends such as Isidro Langara, Luis Regueiro and Horacio Casarin. For him, though, two players stood out above them all: his great friend Luis de la Fuente, the famous Mexican 'Pirata', and Jose Manuel Moreno, also known as 'El Charro'.
“Luis spent all his time in the nightclub, and would go from there straight to the stadium,” said Tunas Sr. “He was a heck of a player though. Even so, I never saw anyone as good as Jose. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do with a football.”
We were favourites. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.
After a glorious spell with Espana, during which he won three league titles, Tunas moved to Marte before retiring from the game and taking up a job as a typewriter salesman, having by this time married and settled in Mexico. He has stayed there ever since and now lives with his wife in a residential suburb of Mexico City, watching as much football as he can and recalling the good old days and his former team-mates, all with the broadest of smiles on his face.
He is still much admired in his homeland and in 2005 was presented with the 'Gloria del Deporte Cubano” (Cuban Sports Legend) award by the island’s government. And despite his Spanish blood and lengthy residence in Mexico, he is emphatic as to where his heart lies: “I’m Cuban! No question about it!”
Memories of the day he and his wide-eyed compatriots shocked the world in France may have faded, but Cuba’s former netbuster is still going strong.