As with many things on the island, details are hard to come by with regard to soccer in Cuba. Reports on Spanish language news sites in the days after Cuba’s controversial loss in Canada have listed the four players who were missing. These players are goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper (31 March 1992), defender Raisender Fernandez (22 August 1984), and attacking midfielders Maikel Chang (18 April 1991) and Evier Cordovez (10 November 1989).
One of these things is not like the other; later reports in English have said that one player was sick and the other three had deserted the team hotel. If that’s the case then the defecting players are probably Cooper, Chang, and Cordovez because they are young players with futures in the game. It doesn’t make as much sense for a 28 year old to abandon his life in Cuba for a shot at a career in the United States.
Cuba left three starters and four impact players with the potential to change a game on the island when they traveled to Canada. Raul Gonzalez elected to only bring 15 players with him to the World Cup Qualifying match in Toronto amid whispers that he overlooked players who might have thoughts about jumping ship while on the continent. This plan perhaps lacked foresight as 3 young players brought in as replacements ended up deserting the national team anyway. Rumors on Twitter said that Cooper, Chang, and Cordovez, (along with team psychologist Ignacio Abreu) attempted to cross the border the night of Cuba’s match in Canada.
As is often the case with Cuban defectors, we may see these players pop up in American lower division clubs (as I’ve written about here) or we may never hear these names again outside of the timeline of Cuban international defections. The pure fan in me wants to see these young players make it as professional footballers and make a living in the United States. I know many second and third division teams in this country could use adaptable attacking midfielders/forwards.
In the future however, perhaps players won’t have to desert their country in order to ply their craft outside of the island nation. Raul Castro made a symbolic step forward Tuesday, October 16, by reforming the exit visa process to leave Cuba. Castro announced that now most Cubans (aside from doctors and certain other crucial professions) are free to apply for and pursue visas to leave the communist island. Under previous rules, Cubans were not able to leave the country legally and any clandestine actions (such as desertion abroad or fleeing to Florida) were met with retribution toward’s the person’s family. What is not clear is whether soccer players who leave Cuba under these terms will be welcome to play for the national team, or whether these athletes would want to represent the country they (may have) suffered in.
According to the BBC, the reforms set to take place in January will make it easier for Cubans to legally come to the United States. “Cuba previously saw people attempting to leave the country as traitors or enemies of the revolution, but official recognition is growing that many Cubans want to leave for economic reasons and that the country can benefit from the cash and knowledge they bring back with them.” The potential remittances could be remarkable for Cuba as these payments make up a sizable chunk of the economies of several Latin American countries.
This reform is a small and mostly ceremonious step, but a step nonetheless, towards the ambitious reforms outlined shortly after Raul took power. If the emigration reform is perceived true and successful, Cuba could see the fulfillment of other lofty promises such as the implementation of certain capitalistic practices. I am merely speculating here, but if this occurs Cuban football could undergo a radical transformation into a destination league; firstly for investors and then for talented players from around the Caribbean. In five or ten years if the USL still operates professional soccer, imagine them tapping into Cuba in a more successful mirror of their failed venture into Puerto Rican waters. Or perhaps a united Cuban club could field a team in the United States following the model of the Puerto Rico Islanders.
No matter what imagined outcome awaits Cuba, further reforms can only help the football of the island nation. Economic and social reforms that forge a strong middle class will buoy any independently operated soccer leagues in Cuba while national team players venture off the island in search of growth as athletes. Both of these processes can improve the development of the Cuban national team and ensure future success beyond the group stage of the Gold Cup and the third round of World Cup Qualifying.