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!