November 21, 2017

Bonner SC and the Cuban National Team

“For an idea that does not first seem insane, there is no hope” – Hans Viol, former president of German lower league club Bonner SC, must have been a strong advocate of Einstein’s view on innovation.  After all, he was behind what is arguably one of the most peculiar experiments in recent German football history. With the rest of the footballing world currently taking cue from this Einsteinian mantra (e.g hosting a World Cup in the desert) now seems an appropriate time to revisit Viol’s bizarre vision, which involved his club Bonner SC signing the majority of the Cuban national team around the turn of the century.

Despite its status as Germany’s former (de facto) capital city, a population of over 300.000 (more than Augsburg, Freiburg, Paderborn, Mainz etc.) as well as housing headquarters of important multinational companies including Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post, Bonn was never able to pride itself on a successful football team. For regular professional football, Bonn natives have always had to travel to neighbouring cities such as Cologne or the nearby Ruhr area. Bonner SC, founded in 1965 through a merger of Bonner FC and Tura Bonn, may be the city’s biggest football club, however apart from a short stint in Bundesliga 2 in 1976/77 it hasn’t experienced too much success over the years. Indeed, BSC has spent the majority of its existence in Germany’s fourth and fifth division. They are currently topping the table in the Oberliga Mittelrhein (fifth tier of German football).

In 1998, BSC was fighting for survival in the Oberliga Nordrhein (fourth division back then), yet owner and entrepreneur Hans Viol was determined to bring the glory days, i.e. promotion to Bundesliga 2, back to Sportpark Nord as soon as possible. With a mediocre squad and a tight financial budget the club would have to think outside the box to achieve its big goal, which brings us back to the Einstein quote.

When a friend handed Viol a tape of Cuba’s valiant 0-2 defeat at the hands of Brazil, the then 52-year-old began envisioning what was going to be the managerial masterstroke that would help his club push for consecutive promotions. The basic idea was for Bonner SC to sign the 15 best players from the Cuban national team that fought so bravely against the multiple World Cup winners, with both parties benefitting equally from such an arrangement: BSC would be able to field players with international experience, while the Cubans were to benefit from the advanced training standards and conditions in Germany. After all, the Cuban national team desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of their Jamaican neighbours, who participated in the 1998 World Cup, by qualifying for the 2002 Finals in Japan and South Korea. It was agreed that Bonner SC would organise friendlies against national teams such as Luxemburg and Liechtenstein to help the Cubans prepare for their World Cup qualification. Two coaches, one translator, a masseur and a cook were to join the players on their adventure to help them settle in Germany.

Certainly in hindsight, the whole experiment seems pretty ludicrous and it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise to find out that it wasn’t crowned with success.   It lasted a little while longer than one might suspect, though. For one, the rule which back then stated that clubs were only allowed to sign three non-EU players, did not apply to divisions below the top two tiers of German football. Hence, negotiations were able to advance and the Cuban players were given contracts, while the transfer rights always remained with the Cuban football association. In terms of remuneration, it was agreed that the club would take care of organising accommodation, food and various other expenses. In addition, the Cuban players were also given a small amount of “pocket money”, as Viol referred to it in Spiegel interview back in 1998, and instead of a loan fee the club agreed to send sporting goods to Cuba on a regular basis.

While the deal posed all sorts of ethical conundrums and was widely frowned upon, in fact both the German FA and FIFA investigated the legitimacy of Viol’s Cuban experiment, five players from the national team actually made their debut for BSC on April 11th 1999 as part of a training camp ahead of the Caribbean Cup. However, soon after, Cologne district president Franz-Josef Antwerpes’s denied the issued tourist visas amidst increasing doubts regarding the admissibility of the whole arrangement. In the end both parties fell short of their goals as the Cubans missed out on World Cup qualification and Bonner SC were relegated once again at the end of the season. While the story of “FC Fidel”, as the new-look BSC was referred to in the media at the time, remains an entertaining anecdote it also serves as a bittersweet reminder of where management has gone wrong all too many times in the club’s recent, chaotic history.

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Leon Weber

Born in Germany but having spent five years studying in Glasgow, Leon never quite warmed to the SPL. He likes writing on German football though. @leonweber87

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