I cannot say that I find the story -- or is it the saga? -- of the defecting Cubans a particularly edifying episode. Which puts me at odds with those who will no doubt see it as a heroic dash for freedom. Possibly it is that, but there are other aspects that I find disturbing.
The oddities start well before the team had set foot on the field. Given the fact that U.S. law makes it particularly easy for Cubans to find asylum in the USA, it must surely have occurred to the Concacaf organizers of this Olympic qualifying tournament that Cuban soccer teams playing in the United States might be vulnerable to defections -- not least because it has happened before.
One good idea to minimize the possibility of defections would be to avoid placing the Cubans in a Florida, with its huge Cuban -- and largely pro-defection -- community. That should have been possible -- one first round group in the Concacaf tournament played in California. But the Cubans played their games in Tampa.
Another obvious precaution would surely be to ensure adequate security. Something went absurdly wrong here -- because after their first game, no fewer than five players had no problem simply walking out of the team hotel.
One is simply bewildered by all of that. Just as one can only shake one's head at Miami FC, which jumped into the affair with indecent haste. Not much more than 24 hours after the five players had abandoned their team, Miami FC spokesman Marcos Ommatti announced that the players would be "training with us this weekend ... if they are good enough they may be offered contracts with us."
Rather quickly, that gushing welcome for the defectors was drastically toned down. It was a much more sober-sounding Ommatti who let it be known that "Our first intention was to help but we had to think it through. 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."
Exactly. The five defectors -- there were two more shortly afterward -- left their teammates and their coach in an impossible situation. The team had played well in its first game, well worth its 1-1 tie with the USA. After the defections, it was left with only 11 players -- one of whom was suspended -- meaning that it had to take the field against Honduras with only 10 men, and no substitutes.
"This was a very irresponsible act of cowardice by these five players," Antonio Garces, a Cuban soccer federation official, told Reuters in Havana, "They have betrayed their homeland."
A bitter verdict, but one that I find it impossible to disagree with. To cynically desert your team, to leave your teammates in the lurch is not an action that elicits any admiration in this column.
It is, in fact, an action that ought not to go unpunished. Concacaf is the governing body that should be acting here. Is it acceptable to Concacaf to have its tournament rendered a farce? That did not quite happen -- but only because the Cuban players who did notdefect put a brave face on matters, and played on under hopeless circumstances.
Concacaf owes them a heavy debt of thanks. By the same token it should take some sort of action against the defectors, a suspension maybe. But nothing will happen. Concacaf will wash its hands of the matter. Maybe the Cuban soccer federation should take action -- against players it no longer controls? The players' clubs in Cuba -- presumably, under the Communist way of doing things, amateur clubs -- will have to without them. Tough luck.
And U.S. clubs will benefit, should any of the defectors prove good enough. On that front, Miami FC has been replaced by the L.A. Galaxy as a possible resting place for some of the players, with the Galaxy's official blog reporting that three of them are training with the club.
In short, it has been a thoroughly sordid episode, a slap in the face of sportsmanship and fair play. An episode that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. A sour taste that may get worse. Coming up: another Concacaf tournament, this time it's World Cup qualifying -- with the possibility of a United States-Cuba home and home series.