Yosmel de Armas and the Problem of Cuban Player Defections

Yosmel de Armas competing against Honduras in the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament

At some point between the Cuban u23 team’s game against Honduras on Saturday and when the team loaded onto the bus from the hotel for the match against Canada on Monday, Yosmel de Armas fled the team hotel.

The 22 year old defender who played for La Habana back in Cuba is the latest in an extensive series of athletes who defect during tournaments in the United States.  A majority of these cases are baseball players, boxers, and soccer players.

“The player that’s not here today is feeling very sick. He left yesterday in practice. He injured his ankle, so he was in the hotel. Something else happened. He doesn’t really know,” a translator said for Cuba coach Raul Triana Gonzalez about de Armas being listed as “Not present” for the match against Canada.

Via the “wet foot, dry foot” law, if a Cuban national steps foot in the United States he can claim asylum and after a year can claim legal residency.  This simplified immigration and assimilation process has allowed over a dozen Cuban soccer players to successfully defect during tournaments in the United States in the last decade.  While officials in Cuba often use flowery rhetoric about betraying the homeland to pursue materialism in the evil empire, Cuba does not typically pursue or antagonize the families of those who leave anymore.  This presents players a situation where players decide to give up seeing their families for the chance to make a career as a professional soccer player in the United States.

At the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Ray Angel Martinez, former Rochester Rhino who played with the Rochester Lancers in the Major Indoor Soccer League this past winter, and Alberto Delgado decided to live in the United States.

Striker Maykel Galindo, who starred for Chivas in 2007-2008 before a slate of injury problems, and who most recently played for FC Dallas in Major League Soccer, decided to stay in the United States during the 2005 Gold Cup.  Galindo was probably the best known player to have defected, leaving during the CONCACAF Gold Cup after the U.S. recorded a 3-1 victory over Cuba in Seattle by walking out the front door of the team’s hotel.

Osvaldo Alonso, who now plays for Seattle Sounders FC, and Lester More, left the National Team during the 2007 Gold Cup.  Citing Galindo as an influence, Alonso walked out the front door of a Wal-Mart in Houston, Texas.  After walking a couple blocks down the road he borrowed a cell phone and called an acquaintance in Miami.  After an initial trial with Chivas USA, he and More both joined the Charleston Battery in the USL. After only a year, Alonso earned a move to Seattle Sounders FC for its debut season in MLS in 2009 where he has been a beast in the midfield for the Cascadia club since.

During the 2008 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, seven players left Cuba’s Under-23 team.  The first five were Jose Manuel Miranda, Erlys Garcia Baro, Yenier Bermudez (captain), Yordany Alvarez and Loanni Prieto, who fled on the night of Tuesday March 11 after a 1-1 draw against the United States u23 team.  Yendry Diaz and Eder Roldan also left the Cuban team the following night.  Yordany Alvarez currently plays for Real Salt Lake after a very successful season with Orlando City last year.

Andrea Davis, the Tampa police spokeswoman said at the time that the department had not received any missing persons reports from the team and that no officers were called to the team’s hotel to investigate the disappearances.  This means that the team officials effectively deemed this an inevitable result of playing the United States.  Interestingly for this case, the United Soccer League club Miami FC (now rebranded the Ft Lauderdale Strikers and playing in the NASL) offered a tryout for the group of defected Cuban players.

In October 9, 2008, two days prior to the Caribbean country’s World Cup qualifier on Saturday against the U.S. in Washington, D.C., two players — left the team’s hotel near the nation’s capital. Pedro Faife and Reinier Alcántara disappeared from their hotel outside Washington before a practice on Friday.

“It is always a problem for the Cuba team,” Cuba’s head coach Reinhold Fanz told reporters following this incident. “We have security, but you can’t handcuff them to their rooms.”

During the 2011 Gold Cup, National Team Player of the Year Yosniel Mesa decided to defect while the team was in Charlotte, N.C. for a game.  Mesa slipped down a fire escape to meet his uncle in the parking lot, from where they drove to Miami.

“I didn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain,” Mesa told El Nuevo Herald after arriving in Florida.  Mesa made the difficult decision to leave his five-year-old daughter in Cuba without getting a chance to say goodbye to her.  “She wouldn’t have understood,” Mesa said to the Charlotte Observer.

During the 2012 Women’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver in January, two women defected for the first time.  Star striker Yezenia Gallardo and midfielder Yunelsis Rodriguez decided to leave the team.

During an online interview, Maykel Galindo laid out what the incentives are for a young Cuban player to defect and the effect that it has on Cuban soccer.

“I think it has hurt the Cuban National Team to have many of the players that left the team.  I am not just saying it because of myself but because of the young players from the U-23 who left the national team because they were talented and they were the better players.”

“I don’t feel guilty for leaving my team.  I didn’t talk to anyone about it beforehand, and I decided it on my own.”

“They leave Cuba because they want to make something out of their lives.  They are in search of the dream of playing soccer at a professional level and they know that Cuba will not offer them that. They do it because they feel that their family will be proud of them if they make it to the professional level and many of those players have realized that they can achieve that goal. Thankfully, in my case, doors were being opened to me.”

Cuban athletes are faced with a dilemma of choosing between a potentially lucrative professional contract and the prospect of never seeing their family ever again.  Despite the high cost, many baseball players, boxers, and soccer players make the decision to defect and live in the United States.  In the foreseeable future, Cuba will not stop producing talented athletes who are hungry to compete at the highest level they can.  Unfortunately, the country is not going to accomplish anything in the world of football if the nation remains isolated and without private ownership of clubs.  If the national team continues to lose some of its most promising players every cycle, Cuba is unlikely to qualify for a World Cup again, a feat the island nation last accomplished in 1938.

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2 thoughts on “Yosmel de Armas and the Problem of Cuban Player Defections

  1. Pingback: Rhinos Find a Way Past the L.A. Blues Again | Doherty Soccer

  2. Pingback: Cubans Deserting in Canada and Potential Emigration Reform | Doherty Soccer

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