Jasiel Rivero's performance is key to the Cuban team's success. Photo: FIBA AMÉRICA

On May 19, 1999, Cuba met Puerto Rico in one of the most spectacular finals in the history of Centrobasket competitions. The event took place in Havana's Ciudad Deportiva coliseum, and the Cuban team won the tight game 67 to 63, in what was the country's last appearance as the home team in an international tournament.

At that time, no one would have imagined that 18 years later, the same opponent would be featured in Cuba's return to this level of basketball competition, in a game on November 26, when the two teams face off on the same court, in the second round of continental qualifying events for the World Cup.

With its eyes set on the prize, the pre-selection team, under the direction of

Yoannis Zaldívar, is training on the Giraldo Córdova Cardín indoor court, in the city of Ciego de Ávila. Cuba will begin its participation as the visitor on the 23rd against Mexico - another strong rival in the C group which also includes the United States.

The group working in Ciego de Ávila began with all of the country's stars with the exception of those playing in the Argentine National Basketball League: Santiago de Cuba's pivot, Javier Justiz  (2.10 meters), a key member of the team; and two promising young players, Yoanki Mensía (1.96) and Karel Guzmán (1.95), who will be arriving prior to the big game.

The roster includes Artemisa's Osmel Oliva (1.78); Orestes Torres (2.04) and Lisván Valdés (1.98) from Havana; and Villa Clara's Yoel Cubilla (2.04), who just completed his participation in El Savador's major league.

Another key player is Havana's Jasiel Rivero (2.04), who is in great condition, completing the 14 member national selection, along with teammate Abel Font (2.06); Pinar del Río's Eliecer Quintana (2.05); Yuniskel Molina (1.85) from Matanzas; Camagüey's Carlos César Villegas (1.99); plus William Granda (1.90) and Yasser Rodríguez (1.86), both from Ciego de Avila.

Zaldívar told the newspaper Invasor that Granda is still recovering from an injury that prevented him from training, and that Cubilla will compete although his ankle is bothering him.

This young team, inexperienced but talented - with players averaging 25 years of age and 1.97 meters in height - is facing a stiff challenge, and little chance of winning one of the three tickets to the next round. Two years ago, during the FIBA AmeriCup held in Mexico City, they lost all of their games with Canada, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Argentina. But they are back to try again.