ATR First: Mass Desertion for Cuba Soccer Team

(ATR) Cuba suffers the biggest ever team desertion at a CONCACAF tournament in Florida.

(ATR) The Cuban team at the under 20 CONCACAF championship in Bradenton, Florida sets a dubious record. In the past week 12 players from the team appear to have defected, the largest ever desertion suffered so far by Cuba in international sport.

So far CONCACAF has not confirmed these defections. Sources tell Around the Rings that the players left the team in three separate groups last week and are still likely in Florida in the care of friends or relatives.

The massive defection happened 10 years after the previous similar instance when seven Cuban players and a coach remained in Tampa after the CONCACAF championship ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

In both instances Cuba had the same technical director, Raúl González Triana. He has helped coach Cuba to qualify for the U20 World Cup in 2013 in Turkey and won a bronze medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz in 2014.

This large-scale desertion comes at a time when the Cuban football Federation has begun opening the doors to allow Cuban players to take contracts with professional leagues in the Caribbean region. However, the process can be slow and bureaucratic and has led some players to seek representation from agents outside Cuba. Cuban soccer players are now playing professionally for teams in the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica and Honduras.

The 12 players who have just left the Cuban delegation face the punishment of not being able to return to Cuba in eight years according to the laws of the communist nation.

The escape comes as a surprise to some observers since traditional migratory benefits granted to Cubans fleeing to the U.S. ended in early 2017.

Compared to the more favored and well treated baseball players who leave Cuba, the prospects for a career in professional sport in the not socertain.

But a former Cuban sports official now living in Miami tells ATR that the opportunity of being in the United States with a visa can be tempting.

"Having a US visa is very precious at this time. Some may think that if they do not succeed as footballers they will at least be able to get employment opportunities to break through and help their families on the island," he says.

Cuban soccer players who have managed to succeed in professional soccer in the United States are very few. There are two prominent figures in Major League Soccer, Maykel Galindo, who defected in 2005 in Seattle, and Osvaldo Alonso, who escaped in 2007 in Houston, both during the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Under current immigration law, the escaped soccer players could opt to remain in the U.S.for a year and one day, allowing them to apply for permanent residency.

A source close to the Cuban delegation told ATR on condition of anonymity, from Bradenton, that the defections did not occur suddenly but across three days. On November 5, after the victory of Cuba over Belize the first group left the team. Then on November 9 another group with the squad after losing to Honduras. The final desertions took place the day after just before the Cuban team left Bradenton for the airport in Tampa and a return to Cuba.

After finishing second in their group behind Honduras, Cuba still has the possibility to win one of the two slots to represent CONCACAF in the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima. But after this debacle it is not known whether Cuban authorities would authorize the sending a team to the continental tournament given the experience during the past week in Florida.

According to a list provided to ATR the 12 "fugados" were the goalkeepers Danny Echeverría and Arturo Godoy, defenders Yoel Llorente, Manuel Rendón, Omar Proenza and Frank Nodarse. There were six midfielders who have deserted: Rivaldo Ibarra, Josué Vega, Omar Pérez, Rolando Oviedo, Geobel Pérez and Yandi Romero

Reported by Miguel Hernandez.