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New York Cosmos arrive in Cuba for historic match

With old Brazilian master Pele in tow, US soccer team New York Cosmos has arrived in Cuba to play a friendly against the country's national team. It's meant to be part of a new era between the two countries.

The New York Cosmos landed in Havana on Monday, with Brazilian soccer royalty among the delegation, for a slightly unusual slice of the US and Cuba's efforts to improve bilateral relations. It's the first trip by a major American soccer club to Cuba since 1978.

"We are extremely privileged and honored to accept this opportunity," said Cosmos chairman Seamus O'Brien ahead of Tuesday's game. "This happened naturally, very quickly. There was instant reciprocity from both sides, wanting to do the game."

Planning for the match began earlier this year, when the Cosmos first spoke to officials in the US and Cuba about the possibility of organizing a game. Last week the United States

dropped Cuba from its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism,

as the two countries seek to restore diplomatic ties frozen for five decades.

The project gathered pace when Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese traveled to Jamaica in January and met Cuban officials on the sidelines of regional qualifiers for the Under-20 World Cup. The Cosmos side then coordinated the trip with the US State Department, Justice Department and White House.

Raul arrives at Havanna airport

Former Real Madrid and Schalke player Raul now plays for the New York Cosmos

A unique history

The game itself, which will be played at the Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havanna, will see European stars Raul and former Villareal player Marcos Senna line up for the Cosmos against Cuba, the world's 109th ranked national team.

For the Cosmos, Tuesday's match continues a long list of unique, overseas tours. This year they've already played friendlies in Hong Kong and El Salvador, and Cuba will be the 42nd country the team has visited in its history.

Though the Cosmos currently do not play in the biggest US league, the MLS - they compete in the resurrected NASL - they remain one of the most well-known clubs in US soccer. In the 1970s they managed to attract players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia to their ranks.

"We hope that our match will be an important step forward in growing the popularity of the global game in Cuba and improving relations between the two nations," O'Brien said.

al/msh (AFP, dpa)

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