A Brief History of Cuban Soccer Defections
By Stephen Wood | October 5, 2016 | 5:50pm
Cuba will host the U.S. men’s national team in Havana on Friday, just
the second time the Yanks have set foot on the island since the
beginning of the Cold War-era embargo. While U.S. Soccer touts the
“historic” friendly as a triumph of sports diplomacy, Cubans may be
excited for a more practical reason: playing on their home soil, at
least none of their players will be able to defect.
Over 30 Cuban soccer players have defected while on international duty
in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada since the institution of America’s “wet
foot, dry foot” policy. This policy, the byproduct of a 1995 revision to
laws regarding immigration from Cuba, essentially promises a pathway to
U.S. citizenship for any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil. Since its
enactment, dramatic scenes have played out along the Florida coast as
people fleeing the Castro government try desperately to make it ashore.
For most, the journey is a perilous, sometimes deadly one.
For others, soccer has been a way out. The institution of “wet foot, dry
foot” set off a steady trickle of defections by Cuban international
soccer players, one that quickens even as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw.
Goalkeeper Rodney Valdes may have started the trend in 1999, when he
snuck away from his teammates while in Winnipeg with the Cuban national
team for the Pan American Games. During the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, two
members of the national team went to their Los Angeles hotel lobby to
“make a phone call” and fled to the house of a nearby relative. Forward
Maykel Galindo defected in Seattle while representing Cuba in the 2005
Gold Cup and went on to make 74 appearances for the MLS’ Chivas USA
before playing for several other lower-division teams.
One wonders why the Football Association of Cuba felt it was worth it to
keep competing in the Gold Cup. In 2007, the tournament was the backdrop
for perhaps Cuba’s most well-known football defection, that of Osvaldo
The midfielder was a rising star, having captained the Cuba U-23’s and
worked his way into the senior team, when he defected in Houston. On a
trip to that most iconic of American institutions, Wal-Mart, Alonso
wandered off from his teammates, asked a Spanish-speaking bystander if
he could use his phone, called friends in Miami, and got on a bus to
Ozzie was soon playing for the Charleston Battery – TransferMarkt.com
hilariously lists the move from his Cuban club as a “free transfer” –
and signed with the newly-formed Seattle Sounders in 2009. Since then,
he has helped the Sounders make their mark on the league, scoring 20
goals and notching 277 appearances.
He also gained U.S. citizenship, which would clear him to play for the
U.S. national team if he could prove that his Cuban citizenship was
revoked against his will. Both Alonso and USMNT boss Jürgen Klinsmann
have expressed interest in his suiting up for the U.S.A., but for
whatever reason the Cuban authorities have been less than cooperative.
His international career has long been in limbo, as he is not welcome in
his homeland but cannot formally renounce his citizenship without
permanently forfeiting his chance to play for another country. Though he
still starts regularly for Seattle at age 31, it’s highly unlikely he’ll
ever play for the USMNT.
Ozzie may be MLS’ answer to Yasiel Puig, but soccer lags far behind
baseball when it comes to high-profile defectors. Whereas many
baseball-playing defectors arrived in America knowing that Major League
Baseball teams would be fighting to sign them, Cuban soccer players
cannot expect anything, other than a shot at becoming an American.
Lester Moré, who defected on the same 2007 trip as Alonso, never made an
MLS roster but did play for a spell with the Battery, a team that
enthusiastically welcomes Cuban defectors. Seven U-23 players slipped
away from their Doubletree Hotel during an Olympic qualifying tournament
in Tampa the next year. Their defection drew media attention and offers
of tryouts with Miami FC, but only one of them, Yordany Alvarez, reached
MLS, though several had stints with Charleston or the Orange County Blues.
Just last year, over a dozen Cuban soccer players appeared to have
defected. After setting up the only goal in Cuba’s Gold Cup victory over
Guatemala in Charlotte, Ariel Martinez gave his coach a farewell hug and
disappeared “into the darkness,” becoming the fourth member of his team
to defect over the course of the tournament. He made an appearance with
the Battery, a club that goes out of its way to recruit Cuban refugees,
before signing with similarly Cuban-friendly Miami FC.
Several more young players slipped away during Olympic qualifying last
year, and two more defected during a trip to Mexico.
Though Cuban authorities signaled in 2013 that they would begin to allow
Cuban nationals to sign contracts with Liga MX clubs, it remains very
difficult for players to secure a contract by going through the island
Meanwhile, President Obama’s lifting of the embargo in 2014 has led to
an increased rate of defections. Weirdly simplistic and arbitrary though
it may be, the wet foot, dry foot policy does give Cubans an easier
route to citizenship than many other would-be immigrants who reach the
border. Cubans fear that, as the U.S-Cuba relationship normalizes, they
will lose this unique pathway and immigration will become even more
As such, the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations could mean even more Cuban
athletes will seek refuge in the United States in the coming years. The
U.S. is expected to host the 2017 Gold Cup, so it looks like we’re on
track for another round of defections should Cuba qualify.
No defectors will play for the U.S. Friday, but the match in Havana will
still serve as a reminder, to the home crowd and the American audience,
of those who left their team, their families, and, in some cases, their
careers behind when they left the island for good.
Source: A Brief History of Cuban Soccer Defections :: Soccer :: Features
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