HAVANA -- An under-17 soccer team from Nebraska brought the American heartland to Cuba on Monday in the countries' first amateur sports exchange since Washington announced its intention to improve relations through "people to people" encounters.
The Gold Nemesis, Nebraska's top under-17 soccer club, tied 2-2 against Cuba's national high school level team in the first of four matches.
Both sides expressed hope such exchanges would help improve ties between the countries, which haven't had diplomatic relations in decades.
"I think sports is a great way to break barriers. The language can separate you, but through soccer you can speak your own language," said Zach Wells, 17, one of three Gold Nemesis captains.
The Nebraskans are the first amateur team to visit Cuba since President Clinton announced in January that he hoped to increase sports and cultural exchanges.
The 21 members of the four-time state champions arrived Saturday, in the middle of a three-day visit by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.
Luis Hernandez, president of the Cuban Soccer Association, said the two visits marked progress in improving U.S.-Cuba relations.
"I think they are steps toward greater closeness. The people of Cuba greatly admire the people of the United States and I think it is vice versa as well," Hernandez said while watching Monday's match.
The Nebraskans, who raised $24,000 to make the week long trip, presented two Cuban amateur teams with jerseys donated by Reebok and the Italian company Diadora.
The Cuban players promptly put on their new jerseys to play the Americans.
The tournament follows Cuban criticism of the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Cuban athletes said they were harassed by U.S. athletic scouts who encouraged defections from the communist island.
But there was no animosity expressed against the Nebraskans, who said they have only received positive greetings in Cuba. The crowd of about 300 at Monday's game, including many "soccer moms and dads" from Nebraska, offered enthusiastic support for the teams.
"Despite Cuba's problems in Winnipeg, we don't have any hard feelings against anyone," said Michael Galinda, 18, a member of Havana's champion selection team. "We wish to give them a big welcome for this, which is so beautiful."