HAVANA - In a most surreal and historic day in international soccer, The Star-Spangled Banner was not only played in front of thousands of Cubans, it was cheered as well.
For one night, sports diplomacy was the winner.
The Cosmos and the Cuban national team put their best feet forward in the first sporting event between the two countries since President Barack Obama announced plans to normalize relations between the two in December.
The Cosmos recorded a 4-1 win before 18,000 fans at the rainy Estadio Pedro Marrero. The North American Soccer League team did its scoring in the opening half with two goals by Lucky Mkosana and one apiece from Sebastian Guenzatti and Hagop Chirishian. Andy Vaquero tallied Cuba's lone goal early in the second half.
The score really did not matter. The fact that these two teams faced off was more significant. The Baltimore Orioles were the last American team to play here in 1999 and the Chicago Sting was the last U.S. pro soccer team to compete here in 1978.
"It was a good game, an incredible experience," Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese said.
"Great experience with the crowd," Mkosana said. "I'll probably cherish that for the rest of my life. I'm really honored to be part of this history."
As the Cosmos took the field for their warm-ups, the crowd chanted "Raul! Raul!" That wasn't for their country's president, Raul Castro, who did not attend the match, but rather for the Cosmos' legendary striker, Raul, who has a vibrant fan base here.
"Football brings people together and we saw it today," Raul said.
About a half hour before the match the teams marched out to the FIFA fanfare that is reserved for international matches. In a rare moment, the U.S. national anthem was played and it received a huge ovation.
"I'm not big into politics," goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer said. "Everyone knows how the situation has been. A simple thing like that, people cheering, it gets a little emotional. It was a great moment and an honor to be a part of."
Maurer kept his emotions in check.
"It's always one of those things in sport, you're almost blind to it," he said. "You don't realize it until after the fact. After the time passes, as we look back at it, it will hit us more."
If things fall into place, there could be more sporting competitions between the countries.
"This is a great first step," Savarese said. "The doors are open."