Los Angeles (AFP) – When the United States take to the field to face Cuba at Havana’s Estadio Pedro Marrero on Friday, it will mark another step on the road towards normalization of relations between the former foes.

In July last year, Cuba and the United States brought more than half a century of enmity to an end when they restored diplomatic ties which had been cut in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. 

A month earlier, the blossoming mood of rapprochement was given a sprinkling of goodwill when a New York Cosmos team including Brazilian legend Pele in their delegation traveled to Havana to face Cuba in a friendly. 

It highlighted the role sport has played to thaw hitherto chilly relations between the two nations, a strategic tool the United States has made use of repeatedly for decades. 

As far back as 1934, a team of US baseball all-stars led by Babe Ruth was embarking on a goodwill tour of Japan in a visit the trip’s sponsors hoped would lead to a reduction in tensions between the two powers. 

The effect of that trip was limited however. No diplomatic breakthrough resulted and seven years later the two countries were locked in a bloody war. 

A more successful outcome followed the most famous example of sport being used to build bridges — the “ping-pong diplomacy” exchanges between China and the United States in the 1970s which yielded a tangible improvement in Sino-US relations. 

Until the US squad of table tennis players and journalists arrived in China in April 1971, no US team had visited the country since the ruling Communist Party took power in 1949. 

Two months after that landmark visit, the United States lifted its embargo against China. 

In February 1972, President Nixon paid a historic visit to China, meeting Chairman Mao Zedong and ending 25 years of separation in a tour the US leader dubbed as “the week that changed the world.” 

– Mutual desire –

Derek Shearer, former US Ambassador to Finland during the Clinton Administration and professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, notes however that the success of ping-pong diplomacy hinged on its ability to tap into a mutual desire between the two countries to build relations. 

“What was important about ping-pong diplomacy is that if you’re trying to resolve a very difficult diplomatic issue like normalizing relations between two countries, other things have to be going in the right direction so that sports diplomacy fits into that,” Shearer told AFP. 

“(Chinese Premier) Zhou Enlai wanted to get out from under the Cultural Revolution and seized the opportunity to invite the American ping-pong team to China — and the State Department people were smart enough to accept. 

“It was clearly Zhou, with Mao’s support, saying ‘We want to normalize relations with the US’. And that of course made it then easier for Nixon when he came.” 

Other initiatives have met with less concrete results. 

Baseball diplomacy between Cuba and the United States has been tried sporadically throughout the years, with a delegation of Houston Astros coaches and players visiting Cuba in 1977. 

In 1999 the Baltimore Orioles played a game in Havana, but there was to be no major diplomatic breakthrough. 

The Clinton Administration also sought to improve links with Iran during the 1990s, sending a team of US wrestlers to compete in a tournament in Tehran in February 1999. 

Even if relations between Iran and the United States remain tense, Shearer believes that “having these kinds of sporting events is a good thing in and of themselves.” 

“Anytime you can engage over sports it’s way better than having a shooting war,” said Shearer, who argues that while sport “doesn’t substitute for traditional diplomacy and smart use of hard power it can be a virtuous form of soft power.”