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Friday, March 14, 2008
Cuba's defection dilemma

Andrew Hush

As dawn broke on the morning after one of the nation's greatest footballing results, the mood in the Cuban camp should have been buoyant. Instead, the prevailing emotions were of confusion and dismay.

Barely twelve hours after Raul Gonzalez's side had begun their Olympic qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw against the USA, the team had been torn apart by the defection of seven of its number.

As remarkable as Cuba's draw was with the host nation in Tampa, even more amazing was the chain of events that followed the game's final whistle, which was blown at just before 10pm local time. By 10:45pm, the team bus had delivered the Cuban squad back to its hotel where a post-match meal was scheduled.

Within fifteen minutes, five players had, in the words of one: 'slipped out a side entrance of the hotel and run for it'. Waiting for the quintet, none of whom carried their passport, was a car that had been pre-arranged to collect them. The players carried the clothes on their back and little else and, since, two others are reported to have joined them.

The USA has a policy known as 'wet foot, dry foot' which, essentially, means that any Cuban who reaches American soil is permitted to remain in the country for one year, after which he or she may apply for citizenship. With transport to their new homeland - arguably the hardest thing to arrange for any would-be defectors - already taken care of, the only thing remaining for the wantaways is to organize a pick-up, a simple task given the vast Cuban community in Florida.

But uncertainty lies ahead for the players in pursuit of their own version of the American dream. Their hope is to follow in the footsteps of previous defectors who bolted in the hope of signing with US-based teams, such as Maykel Galindo, who is building a promising career with Chivas USA following his defection during the same tournament three years later.

Galindo's success is an exception, however. Rey Angel Martinez and Alberto Delgado, who left the Cuban squad at the 2002 Gold Cup, both signed with Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer for the 2004 season but neither was back with the team a year later. Lester More, who defected from the national team in Houston last year, has finally latched on with Charleston Battery of the United Soccer League.

It has already been confirmed that several of this latest batch of Cuban defectors have lined up trials with Miami FC, who also play in the USL. But they may do well to take a history lesson before they assume their journey is complete.

The events of the past few days have raised a number of questions. The most obvious one concerns security around the Cuban team. Of course, 24-hour surveillance is neither possible nor preferred - these are free men after all - but their escape seems to have been accomplished with minimum effort. The team bus was given a police escort to and from the stadium for the match against the USA, but it is believed that little extra security was in place at the hotel.

Furthermore, the decision to place Cuba in Florida for its qualifying group matches is also, in hindsight, questionable. Although the examples of Martinez, Delgado and Galindo suggest that defection is possible wherever you may be in the USA, these are a young group of men that may have had second thoughts about the choice they made had they been in a less familiar environment. It is no surprise that their rumoured destination while they seek to establish themselves is Miami, a city whose population is one third Cuban.

Consideration must also be given to the players and coaches left behind. The fact is that Cuba's draw with the USA was a result that greatly enhanced the nation's chance of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. Though the defectors have their reasons for doing what they did, the fact is that they have betrayed the players with whom they boarded the plane to America.

It was a sad sight to behold as those Cuban players that remained with the team took the field for their second match against Honduras. In addition to those that had left them, suspension robbed Gonzalez of another player, meaning that he had only ten players at his disposal. To their credit, Cuba fought hard before ultimately losing, 2-0 and tired legs meant that several of the Cuban side left the field barely able to walk.

In the immediate aftermath of the defections, the suggestion was that Cuba would be forced to forfeit their remaining games. Such a scenario, however, would have potentially led to further recriminations from football's governing bodies. Faced with a no-win situation, Gonzalez and his players represented their nation with pride.

A further spin-off from the affair is the impact it has on the qualifying competition as a whole. There is little doubt that a United States team that was pushed so hard by a full-strength Cuban side will have a legitimate complaint should any failure to qualify stem from their inability to win their opening game. Honduras and Panama may be sympathetic to Cuba's plight but that feeling will not extend to the playing field.

Cuba has a long history of the defection of its nationals. Many get away on high-risk missions that put their lives in danger. Having enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to their ideal destination, it is perhaps not surprising that these young men have chosen to seek asylum in order to pursue their professional soccer dreams in the 'land of the free'.

However, the actions of these young men have implications that go beyond individual ambition. It is only due to the players they left behind that Cuba is not likely to face serious sanctions for failing to fulfill their fixtures. Of course, as this article is being written, there is no guarantee that further defections are not imminent.

With hopes of Olympic qualification all but gone following defeat to Honduras, who is to say what happens next? One thing is for sure, the remaining Cuban players will have no better chance to defect. Should they do so, it will be yet another body blow to the world game in one of its most unique nations.

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