Cuba: the last country that hasn't heard of Man Utd

I've just come back from nine days in Cuba. Very weird. They have two economies, one based on US dollars and the other on local pesos. I kept on meeting university lecturers, engineers and government economists who had given up their jobs to become beach attendants, waiters, taxi-drivers - anything to get themselves into the tourist industry and able to earn some dollars.

Then there was Cuba's fascination with the Beatles. Beatles music was banned in the sixties as being decadent and western, yet now Cuba is besotted with them. The day I arrived in Havana I found by chance there was an International Beatles Conference about to start. Their third in three years.

Lovely people, lovely country. Alice in Wonderland would find it fascinating. Weirdest of all was finding myself in a totally football-free country.

I like to think, and I find myself opening my mind and thinking it all the time, that football is now the world's lingua franca. They speak it, watch it, play it, know it, all over the planet. Football crosses all cultures, all ages, all classes. Mr Murdoch wants some of it, not because he has any interest in football, but because he knows football equals access.

Cuba is the 23rd Caribbean island I have visited, and the first in which I found it impossible to find the score. I don't mean how Carlisle United got on against Hull, though that would have been nice. I mean how Manchester United and Arsenal got on in their vital European games. Mega, world-class news.

In deepest Botswana, I always know that on the back pages of the local papers there will be a round-up of British results. In Hong Kong you're bound to meet some local kid wearing a Man Utd shirt who will be totally informed. In many West Indian islands you can read match reports over breakfast, either in little faxed digests of Brit news which the better hotels provide, or in the local papers. In Barbados or Jamaica, even though cricket is their number one game, the papers still find space for excitements from the Premier League. In Tobago they are totally clued up, as everyone is following the progress of Dwight Yorke. In Guadeloupe they might not give all the English scores, but I would have got the Arsenal-Lens result. They follow French football, having provided four players for their World Cup winning squad.

In Cuba, nada. Cuba is a place where Ronaldo could go on his hols and not be recognised. Gazza could safely do a bar crawl, which of course he doesn't do any more, and no one would take his photo. Cuba is the only country I've been to where I didn't see one street stall selling Man Utd shirts.

Yes, it's been a cut off country since 1959, but things have changed in the past few years. Witness their booming tourist trade. Over one million foreign visitors will have a holiday in Cuba this year. Think of that passion for the Beatles. All sorts of western influence are creeping in, even if some of them are coming in sideways. I saw Coca-Cola openly on sale, though it had been imported from Mexico.

A knowledge of or interest in football, however, has not seeped through. Now why is this, you ask. Oh go on. Do ask. Well, baseball and basketball are their national sports, that's one reason. Second, being cut off for those 40 years since the revolution. Third, despite the changes, and the collapse of Russia, the Cuban media is still strictly communist controlled, more interested in government news and propaganda than Ronaldo's salary or latest girlfriend. So far, there is no media outlet catering for tourists' interests.

I did have CNN in my hotel bedroom. I watched it for hour after hour, hoping for a one-second news flash about Arsenal or Man Utd. Not a sausage. I've always hated CNN anyway. They pretend to cover the world, but only ever get excited about the weather in Atlanta, some minuscule change in the Dow Jones index or the latest non-news from Washington about Clinton.

My hotel in Varadero was full, which meant there were just under a thousand guests, but only nine were Brits - I enquired at reception. All had arrived before me, so they knew even less than I did about the really, really important things going on in the world.

Last night, within two minutes of my flight arriving back at Gatwick, I found out. I asked the first baggage-handler. I now know that Arsenal were rubbish against Lens but Man Utd against Barcelona was a cracker. What have I missed?

When I got home, I set the video to record Match of the Day, then went straight to sleep, shattered with jet lag and too many mojitos, my new favourite rum drink.

I've just watched it. Either I'm going potty or it's the drink. There was this huge centre-forward in a Newcastle shirt who looked the spitting image of Duncan Ferguson. Who the hell can he be? Some unknown that Ruud has signed from Croatia in the last nine days? Oh my God. It is Duncan Ferguson.

Then in the dug-out at the Blackburn game I noticed this pathetic-looking old bloke standing there, with his hang-dog expression, a bit like Stan Laurel. He reminded me of that caretaker manager Blackburn once had, now what was his name, Tony something, probably in an old folks' home by now. And blow me, it was Tony Something - defrosted, warmed up, back again as caretaker Blackburn manager.

I don't think I'll go abroad again, not to a football-free land. It's not just the awful deprivation and frustration of missing big games, but knowing I will miss unexpected transfers and sudden sackings. Glenn Hoddle. Is he still in work? Not seen a reference to him since I got back . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.