Osvaldo Alonso: “It was extremely difficult because I did leave all my family in Cuba. I saw my future as a professional soccer player. I wanted to play professionally. This was an opportunity that I had. My family understands. It was a decision that I made.” (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)
There is speculation that a player or perhaps players might defect from the Cuban national team prior to playing the U.S. in the Concacaf Nations League match Friday. In December 2012, FrontRowSoccer.com Michael Lewis wrote about how player defections have hurt the Caribbean side.
By Michael Lewis
In the past decade, two dozen players have defected from various Cuban national teams. Numerically, that is more than enough to make up a full squad of players.
There has been quality there as well as several players have gone on to play in Major League Soccer.
You have to wonder how good Cuba might be if had had kept those players. After all, the Lions of the Caribbean reached the Concacaf semifinal round of World Cup qualifying before bowing out without a win. But they rebounded by capturing the Caribbean Cup, 1-0 final win over Trinidad & Tobago last Sunday.
So, there is talent; keeping it is another matter.
Not surprisingly, several more Cuban national team players defected in 2012.
That’s not earth-shattering news, you say; it happens every year.
Well, yes, it just about does, but this year’s defections had a little twist. Not every player defected directly to the United States.
Most of them used Canada as a route to freedom.
Those defections did not happen once, not twice, but three times.
And not all of those defections were men; two women bolted the Cuban team while it was trying to qualify for the London Summer Games at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.
“As with any Cuban sports team that travels the world, the players chase the American dream,” Cuba coach Alexander Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s hard trying to keep the team together. It’s obviously a difficult situation for the team and it’s hard for me to talk about it. And I think that if the Cuban government allowed its players to compete in other categories football, maybe these things would not happen.”
For the record, since 1999, when goalkeeper Rodney Valdes became the first Cuban soccer player to defect at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.
Three years later Rey Martinez and Alberto Delgado bolted the team during the Concacaf Gold Cup.
The 24 players include two women — Yisel Rodriguez and Yezenia Gallardo — who defected during the Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver, Canada in January. They eventually made their way to the United States.
In March, Yosmel de Armas left the Cuban Under-23 national team at the Concacaf men’s Olympic qualifiers in Nashville, Tenn. in March.
And on Oct. 11, four players left the team before a World Cup qualifier against Canada in Toronto. They were midfielder Fernández Cervantes strikers Cordovez Elier Gonzalez and Maikel Chang Ramirez and goalkeeper Odisdel Despaine Cuper. Team psychologist Ignacio Sanchez Abreu also joined them. They made their way to the U.S.
The Cubans, who brought only 15 players because officials wanted to keep down the number of defections, did not have any substitutes in what turned into a 3-0 loss.
Again, you have to wonder how good Cuba might be if it had kept those players and were allowed to develop them. But no player is allowed to leave Cuba to play internationally. There is a fear they will not return.
“I would like to play [overseas], but I would have to be allowed to play,” veteran defender Yeniel Marquez said in Havana earlier this year.
But some players wanted to come back.
Forward Eduardo Sebrango, who emigrated from Cuba to marry a Canadian woman, learned about those restrictions when he wanted to return to play for the national team. Sebrango, who played for the Montreal Impact, had his request denied. Canadians are allowed to visit Cuba. They are not limited by the embargo and restrictions the U.S. government places upon American citizens who want to visit the Caribbean country.
“In Cuba, they don’t believe in professionals,” he said. “They want all the players to be in Cuba. They told me to be able to continue with the National Team, you have to come back and play in Cuba. Playing for your country and at the international level was something else. I gave it up. It was hard. Getting experience here in North American, obviously I thought it was going to help me in the national program. In Cuba. it’s different. That’s how it works there.”
The best of the lot is Seattle Sounders defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who is training or on trial — depending on who you believe — with West Ham United in England. Alonso, who has a bite to his game, was named an MLS Best XI player. He also became a U.S. citizen earlier year, leading to speculation he could have a future with the U.S. national team.
Alonso sacrificed seeing his friends and family, perhaps ever again.
“It was extremely difficult because I did leave all my family in Cuba,” he said. “I saw my future as a professional soccer player. I wanted to play professionally. This was an opportunity that I had. My family understands. It was a decision that I made.”
That was a decision without any regrets.
“I am very thankful to God for giving me this great opportunity,” said Yordany Alvarez, a Real Salt Lake midfielder. “I don’t regret any second, any bit of it. I do miss my family. This is my dream. My dream came true.”
Alvarez realized he could not improve as a player while performing in the amateur National Championship. Players are not allowed to play professionally outside the country. They receive a stipend of about $12 a month, which doesn’t sound like a princely sum, but enough to live on.
“When I played in Cuba, I was at my limit,” he said.
Alonso earned $185,000 in 2012, while Alvarez received $44,100.
In October, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he would talk to Cuban sports officials over the latest batch of defections.
“Definitely, it’s not only a question for the [FIFA] competitions’ department but it is a presidential question that I will address personally to the sports authorities in Cuba, by giving them a copy to give to their political authorities,” Blatter said at the time.
“It is a serious [matter] and we have taken note of that, we have received the reports.”
It was not known whether Blatter saw his ideas through.
Whether Cuba can find a way to plug up the talent drain without allowing players to play elsewhere, it remains.
Officials will have to think of a solution soon. As one of the four Caribbean Cup semifinals, Cuba booked a spot in yet another CONCACAF Gold Cup. The next window of defection will be in July 7-28, when the U.S. hosts the 2013 Gold Cup.
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