Cuban team start with 10 men after defections

March 14, 2008

ORLANDO, Florida, March 14 (Reuters) - Cuba's Olympic soccer team took to the field with only 10 men on Thursday after up to seven players defected.

Five members of the communist state's under-23 team defected after their Olympic qualifier against the United States in Tampa on Tuesday and two others were absent from the line-up against Honduras on Thursday.

Both were reported to have defected.

With one player suspended following a red card, Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez could field only 10 men, with no substitutes.

Cuba held Honduras for 69 minutes before goals from Marvin Sanchez and Hendry Thomas condemned them to defeat.

'It was a great game for Cuba,' said Gonzalez.

'It's hard to play with 10 players. It's something you have to accept.'

The five players who defected after Tuesday's game were captain Yenier Bermudez, goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda, defenders Erlys Garcia Baro and Loanni Prieto and midfielder Yordany Alvarez.

Media reports on Thursday said defender Yendry Diaz and midfielder Eder Roldan had also defected. Neither player was present at Thursday's game.

The Cuban Football Association in Havana slammed the players as cowards.

'This was a very irresponsible act of cowardice by these five players,' Antonio Garces, a Cuban Football Association official, told Reuters in Havana.

'They have betrayed their homeland.'

The Cuban team is part of an eight-nation tournament in the United States to determine which two teams will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in the Beijing Olympics soccer tournament.

The regional soccer governing body, CONCACAF, which organises the tournament, said in a statement that the Cuban team would continue to take part despite the absences.

'CONCACAF's sole objective is to ensure the 2008 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament is carried out in the proper manner,' a statement said.

'The Cuban Delegation has informed us that they will continue to participate in the tournament. All matches, therefore, remain as scheduled.'

The defecting players had initially been offered a trial by second-tier professional team Miami FC but the United Soccer Leagues club later backed away from that position after contact with CONCACAF.

'The official position of Miami FC is that it is not right for any athlete, in any sport, to abandon a competition in the middle of it,' said club spokesman Marcos Ommati.

'Our first intention was to help but we had to think it through,' Ommati said, adding that the players might be offered a chance with the club after they resolved their legal status.

Miami has a large Cuban exile community and the addition of Cuban players would have been a boost to the profile of the club.

Cuba, aiming for their first appearance in the Olympic soccer competition since the 1980 Moscow Games, face Panama in their final game in Group A on Saturday.