The scenes after the final whistle were filled with contradictory emotions. 

While the Netherlands Antilles women’s hockey team celebrated their 1-0 loss to Cuba on Monday like they had just won a do-or-die playoff game, the hosts retreated in silence. Most were simply too stunned to talk. Even the mighty figure of Cuban captain Jadira Puentes was huddled in disbelief. She and her team mates were lucky to have won and she knew it. 

Around her, Antillean players embraced in groups of three or four to cries of “1-0, 1-0”. The chants continued into the dressing room, sending echoes of excitement through the cavernous Estadio Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba’s national hockey stadium. 

“It’s a feeling of victory when you improve with every game,” explained an exhausted Laurien Dumas, who was nursing a tender knee after another physical tour de force against the supremely well conditioned Cubans. 

After a 4-0 drubbing in the first game and a 3-0 loss in the second, the third match indeed was a major improvement. Whereas in the first two games the Antillean ladies ran out of steam in the latter stages of the match, allowing five of the seven goals in the final 20 minutes, on Monday they managed to go the distance. 

With the tough tackling Dumas and Truke van Boxtel leading from the back and Majanka van den Barselaar and St. Maarten’s Niskea Huidekoper doing the chasing in midfield, Irene Wiersma directed traffic up front with incisive passes and penetrating dribbles. 

However, in their excitement at finally having forced the Cubans on the defensive, the Antillean ladies too often spoiled good buildup play with inprecise passing to strikers Linda Noordzij and Gonneke Hermanides. That meant the team lacked the ability to deliver the final killer blow up front since the Antillean ladies simply do not have the speed to outrun the athletic Cubans. 

But for Antillean coach Lothar Duelberg those are details, part of the inevitable learning curve for a team the majority of who have never before played at international level. Observing the scenes of celebration unfolding before him, he said he was more than satisfied with his team’s progress. 

As well he should be. Five days into a working trip to Cuba to prepare his team for the 2006 Central American Hockey Championships, Duelberg has seen the Antillean women’s selection put in several commendable performances against the cream of the Cuban hockey federation. In fact, he feels his team has improved tremendously compared to last year, when they finished 7th at the Pan American Cup in Barbados

No more 16-0 humiliations like against world champion Argentina or even an 8-0 thrashing like against Canada

“We are playing twice as well as we did in Barbados,” he noted. 

And that with a team that has been severely stretched by injuries. Right from the start the Antillean squad were dealt a major blow when Miente Gast got hit by a stick in the face with 10 minutes played in the first game. Having taken only 14 players to Cuba, including two goalkeepers, Duelberg suddenly had to deal with the absence of one of his best defenders. He also had to reshuffle the squad after midfielder Kiona Wellens started complaining about an inflamed tendon in her left leg. 

Both women were able to play in the third game, but the injuries severely reduced their effective playing time. St. Maarten international Kirsten Roldaan filled the role of the injured Gast with her customary determination and fighting spirit. Unfortunately she was also added to the injury list in the third game and is ruled out of action for at least the next several weeks. 

The Cubans meanwhile had no such problems. With eighteen eligible players they could substitute at will to keep the pressure on the overstretched Antilleans. 

The Antilleans somehow had to find a way to compensate for their numerical disadvantage against a team used to training an average 36 hours a week. Not surprisngly, they initially failed to do so. In fact, the physical and mental toughness of the Cubans clearly intimidated the Antillean players in the first two games. 

“As far as their attitude is concerned I thought they were a bit too aggressive,” Dumas said. 

“When we played in Barbados, the matches against Argentina and Canada were tough but fair. There was no unsportsmanlike conduct. But the Cubans had all kinds of dirty little tricks up their sleeve. They would walk away with a smile on their face after knocking somebody over. But if we were initially intimidated, I noticed the team gradually got tougher in response.”

“Everybody has really pulled together and adjusted to the higher level of play,” she added. 

But Dumas can understand the Cuban attitude. 

“You have got to keep in mind that this is their life. If they do not perform, they will be kicked off the team and send back to the provinces where they can pick tobacco leaves for the rest of their lives. You can tell from their change in attitude off the pitch. Like all the Cubans we have met so far, they are really open and friendly. They constantly try to reach out to us. It’s just that on the pitch they have a job to do.” 

Indeed, the Antillean team have developed a grudging admiration for the conditions under which Cuba’s top athletes are expected to perform. 

Lodging at the national sports institute Cerro Pelado on the outskirts of Havana, they have got a first hand look at the deplorable training facilities of Cuba’s national hockey and basketball team, judokas, wrestlers, fencers and volleyball squad. 

They witnessed the rundown dormitories these top athletes live in and the poor quality of the food they are served. And they were shocked by the fact that the athletes only earn the equivalent of eight US Dollars a month and rarely have venture beyond the confines of the school. 

They know that these are the very same athletes that go on to dominate their respective disciplines at every major sports event in the world. 

“I guess their background gives the Cubans that extra edge,” analyzed Duelberg. 

“They know this is their only chance to get a decent education and become a hero for their country. In Holland and the United States, athletes are fed with a golden spoon. They know there is a life for them after sports so they are less motivated.” 

“In this respect the trip has been a huge reality check for the girls,” he added. “But I feel they have responded well. Knowing my team only trains twice a week and given the fact that for most of the girls hockey is just a hobby, not a necessity, they have put in a tremendous performance sofar.” 

At that Duelberg gets up to command his team back into the bus for the trip back to Cerro Pelado. He doesn’t say so, but the smile on his face says it all. Somehow he can’t surpress the feeling that the best is still to come.