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Oddities of the Cuban Defections
by Paul Gardner, April 10th, 2008 6:30AM
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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 not defect 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.

  1. Clark Speese
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 8:47 a.m.
    While perhaps from the limited perspective of Sport there is some merit to your point that the event was "a slap in the face of sportsmanship and fair play," in the broader sense of human existance, the defectors' action in fleeing an oppressive communist totalitarian state for freedom is completely understandable and even praiseworthy. I am troubled at the tone of your article and others I have read, which laments the lack of security: you seem to imply that it would have been far better to use force to send these athletes back to continue to live under a repressive regime, all for the sake of "sportsmanship." I understand and respect the basis for your view, as I recognize the undeniable value of international sporting events. But surely there is also an even more compelling argument for empathy and understanding, if not outright approval, for these athletes' actions in risking a great deal to sieze a better life. What is "sordid" is not these men's actions in defecting, but rather both the conditions which caused them to flee their homeland, and the possibly opportunistic motives of those providing them assistance here.
  1. Carl Walther
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 11:14 a.m.
    So you think Concacaf should become a political body and help governments keep their citizens under control.
  1. Robert Robertson
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 11:25 a.m.
    People have the right to live and work where they want to. However, it is the US Immigration policy which creates this situation. Had these same players gone to the U.S. Interests section and asked for a visa to move to the U.S. they would have to join the many Cubans who have requested to immigrate and wait years and years. The Cuban government has always allowed anyone who wanted to leave the country to leave as long as a country would accept them (usually by issuing a visa). From a sporting perspective, I salute the Cubans who remained loyal to the team and country. For those who left I would remind them all that glitters is not gold -just look at the average MLS players salary.
  1. John Foust
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 11:25 a.m.
    Paul - as much as the intellectualism of your point of sportsmanship sounds appealing, the fundamental issue of human so far transcends these matters as to render your point almost laughable. Been to Cuba, North Korea, etc. Lately? Try to lecture them about sportsmanship in the face of bondage, oppression, starvation? What would have been your take had these been North Koreans?
  1. Paul Levy
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 11:40 a.m.
    I guess you have no concern for players who want to live in a democratic country that does not put people in jail for being gay or for expressing viewpoints contrary to the government line. No, we need "better security" to present such people from seeking asylum. Sheesh. You make a reasonable point about the position into which the remaining teammates were placed, but have you considered the possibility that after the final game, security WOULD have been enhanced and maybe the defecting players figured they needed to get out while the getting was good? I don't share the same hostility to Cuba that engulfs South Florida, but I also don't share your contempt for freedom.
  1. Dave Ryan
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 2:38 p.m.
    Please Mr. Paul!To imply these men are cowards by quoting a Cuban official is more than disengenuous. Are we to believe you are such a naive sport purest that you do not see the fortuitous chance these men had to gain freedom. Since when does the commitment to play in a tournament trump freedom and a chance at life? Cuba's supposed leaders created their mess and they are well seasoned thugs and will get over this embarrasment. Spare the tears! How manny players from CONCACAF who have traveled with their teams to Cuba have defected to be with Fidel and Rual, and all they offer their citicans?
  1. Stephen Bailey
    commented on: April 10, 2008 at 3:19 p.m.
    I cannot believe what I have read. Mr. Gardner often makes very good points and I have enjoyed reading many of his articles. However, I most strongly disagree with this article. Mr. Gardner's fault: Improper context and a horrendous and horrifying improper prioritization of what is important. Mr. Gardner has lifted the honorable values of sportsmanship and team responsibility to be far more important than a human being living his life in freedom. How can anyone have loyalty to a "homeland" that oppresses its people and deprives them of basic individual rights of freedom of speech and association. How can a government that represses its economy and forces its citizens to live far below the standard of living they could otherwise achieve be expected to elicit loyalty from those that it oppresses? If the athletes of any nation require security to keep them from walking off, then that nation deserves to have its athletes defect as it is imprisoning them against their will. I celebrate the athletes defections. I only wish it were easier for other prisoners of Cuba (and other repressive regimes around the world) to find their way to freedom.
  1. Michael Polak
    commented on: April 11, 2008 at 12:19 a.m.
    Honestly, some things are more important than a game! Yes, even soccer! If you think politics has no place in sport, I gather you were one of the few who opposed the international isolation of South African sports under the Apartheid regime. The problem here is the tyranical government of Cuba. Do you suppose this method of emigration from their homeland was the preferred choice of these men? Do you suppose they could have just gone to a government office in Cuba and asked permission to leave the country? Here's the worst part of what you and, in all fairness, others have written on this subject. You say there should have been better security. Are you honestly suggesting that American officials should be involved in keeping these men in the clutches of their handlers? Would you turn our country into a gulag and our local law enforcement into camp guards? Or do you suggest that our law enforcement turn a blind eye to what would be pretty indistiguishable from the crime of false imprisonment and let Cuban government thugs do the job? Seriously, what do you mean by "adequate security?" Did you actually consider the implications of what you were writing?
  1. Joseph Hope
    commented on: April 11, 2008 at 4:36 a.m.
    Paul Gardner it is outrageous that you would have the audacity to complain that there was not enough "security" to keep the Cubans from defecting. These brave young men chose "freedom" in a "Democratic" country instead of remaining slaves in communist Cuba. The freedom seeking Cuban players are not irresponsible you are! Your concept of "sportsmanship and fair play" is perversely convoluted. You should be supporting freedom for all people at all times. It's interesting that you live in comfort in a free country and criticize brave young men who also want to live in freedom.
  1. Tom Wilhelm
    commented on: April 11, 2008 at 1:43 p.m.
    Try to have a little perspective here... as much as we like to think the world revolves around football, there are more important considerations. Sometimes little things like freedom and opportunity have to take precedence over sport.
  1. Eric Pontides
    commented on: April 12, 2008 at 1:36 p.m.
    What are you talking about? Are you for real? Here is what you've said. Let's not let Cuba play in Florida. Why? This is a sports competition and the pairing of teams and sites should not be changed for one country. Better security. Why? Are the players possible terror threats? Is Cuba in the axis of evil? I think that they are just communist. Can every player in the tournament entertain playing abroad? Yes? Not true all except the Cubans. Why do they need to defect? Becuase the Cuban government does not allow them to earn a living outside of Cuba. Also, the only time they leave the island is when they are sent off to represent the very government that holds them and all Cubans back. Did you recently hear that Cubans can now stay at hotels in Cuba and have mobile phones? Pretty Sweet! The thing is that a Cuban makes around $200 a year and one night in a hotel will cost about $200 a night. Cell phone service is even more expensive. I suggest before you write stuff like this you do some reasearch. Take that nasty taste in your mouth and wash it out with some reality.
  1. Anthony Calabrese
    commented on: April 14, 2008 at 10:09 a.m.
    It is a little late for April Fools, but is this piece serious? What exactly does "security" mean in this context, that the FBI should have hired some goons to beat up any Cuban trying to leave?

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