• AFP-Jiji

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Cuba called up Norwich City forward Onel Hernandez and 10 other foreign-based players on Tuesday in a historic first for the island nation ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala and Curacao.

Professional sports were barred under former Cuban leader Fidel Castro from 1961 to 2016 and soccer players could not sign full-time contracts with foreign teams unless they defected.

It was a similar story in all sports.

Iconic boxers such as three-time Olympic champions Felix Savon and Teofilo Stevenson never got to turn professional, while other games gold medalists such as Odlanier Solis and Guillermo Rigondeaux defected in order to pursue professional boxing careers.

Hernandez, 28, emigrated to Germany when he was six and in 2010 he represented the European country at under-18 level.

Last season he became the first Cuban to play in the English Premier League.

In 2019 he told The Guardian newspaper he dreamed of being able to one day represent Cuba, and that is about to come true.

The country’s football association had laid the foundations for the historic move in November when for the first time it registered five players plying their trade abroad.

Jorge Luis Corrales of Canada’s Montreal Impact (now CF Montreal), Carlos Vazquez of Alcorcon in Spain, Joel Apezteguia from Tre Fiori in San Marino and Marcel Hernandez of Alajuelense in Costa Rica were the others registered then.

The other players called up to Cuba’s 26-man squad for matches against Guatemala on March 24 and Curacao four days later, play in Brazil, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Honduras.

The decision had come after calls from fans and players alike to end the ban on foreign-based players in the wake of defections and poor results.

Cuba is taking part in the first qualifying round in the CONCACAF region that incorporates the Caribbean and North and Central America.

Both matches this month will be played in Guatemala, after which Cuba will face further qualifying matches in June against the British Virgin Islands and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Cuba has only played in one World Cup before — in 1938 in France — after all other teams from their Americas qualifying group pulled out.

At the finals themselves, Cuba beat Romania after a replay but was then hammered 8-0 by Sweden.

The Qatar World Cup will run from Nov. 21-Dec. 18, 2022.

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