The Gold Cup Escape

As the Gold Cup group stage is entering its final round, it is a chance to explore perhaps the weakest team in the tournament, Cuba, who lost their opening two games and will not continue to the next round. On Sunday, Cuba will face Canada in a dead rubber game and will then depart back home. The question is, how many of their players will board the flight home from Charlotte? How many of them will be already long gone, looking for asylum in the USA?

The strained relations between the USA and Cuba are well documented. Up until the Cold War, the Americans had a significant influence on its neighboring island, while maintaining a tight grip on Cuba’s economy and internal affairs. This reality changed, however, after the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro who took over in 1959. Castro sided with the Soviet Union and converted Cuba to a socialist country led by a communist party. This opposition to the USA has led eventually to Cuba’s complete isolation in the area and had a massive impact on Cuban citizens, including their freedom of movement and freedom of occupation.

Cuba’s most popular sport, due to the massive American influence, is baseball. After the revolution, Castro has canceled baseball in the country and has forbidden the local players to play abroad, especially in the USA. As a result, hundreds of Cuban baseball players decided to defect the country since, either directly to the USA or via another country – to receive the chance to play in the MLB, showcase their talents and sign lucrative contracts. Twenty years ago, this phenomenon started to occur with Cuban footballers as well, as the local football scene did not develop enough to give them any hope of pursuing a professional career.

Historically speaking, the most effective way to defect, is for a player to be part of a Cuban national team that is participating in a tournament hosted in the USA. As the Americans have a vast variety of stadiums and advanced infrastructure, it hosts many local and international competitions. Unsurprisingly, the Gold Cup is traditionally played in the country. This fact has led to many Cuban footballers to randomly “disappear” in the middle of tournaments, before important games, and never to return to the national team. Since 1999, more than 30 footballers and other team personnel have decided to take this path – almost all during national team visits to the USA.

A prime example is the one of midfielder Osvaldo “Ozzie” Alonso, who represented Cuba in the 2007 Gold Cup, and vanished from a Wal-Mart in Houston before the team’s critical final group stage match vs Honduras. While having a chance to qualify to the next round, Cuba lost 5-0 without their key player. In the same tournament, striker Lester More, Cuba’s top ever scorer still to this day, has also defected. Later, Alonso signed with the Seattle Sounders in 2009. He flourished in the MLS, becoming an integral part in the team’s success, earning four all-star berths, and gaining American citizenship in 2012. Today, he plays for Minnesota United, but the FIFA rules forbid him from representing the USA. However, not all defecting Cuban athletes succeed professionally in the USA, and their actions have serious implications: They are denied return to the country, and their families back home might suffer from different forms of retaliation as well. The risks are clear.

Although this year’s Gold Cup is co-hosted by the USA, Costa Rica and Jamaica - Cuba has been fittingly scheduled to play all their games in the USA. So far only one player has defected, midfielder Yasmany Lopez, who ran from the team hotel following the 7-0 loss to Mexico. It remains to be seen whether more players will jump the opportunity in the next day or two, but in my opinion, this topic raises an even more interesting discussion: How could Cuban football continue and develop, whether internally or in the international stage, as long as this phenomenon continues? A team shows up for a big tournament, only to routinely lose an unknown number of players who leave their friends behind for good. How are they supposed to prepare normally, call up their best players, practice a specific formation, or even trust one another? Imagine your favorite national or club level team dealing with such a scenario.

Furthermore, the longer the tournament lasts and the further the Cuban team proceeds, the more extended the team’s stay on foreign soil, thus the more significant risk for defection. However, it is hard to blame the defecting Cuban athletes for choosing this path, ask Ozzie. After all is set and done, anyone involved in Cuban sports and especially its fans, are the ones who suffer the consequences.