An Introduction to Cuban Soccer and the Specter of Player Defections

Eviel Cordoves left Cuba for the United States in 2012 and now plays for Charleston Battery in USL-Pro - Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

Get to know a shadowy and mysterious neighbor, Cuba. The island nation is always an odd case in international soccer, as it is in many other aspects, and politics once again affects the selection for the national team leading up to the 2013 Gold Cup.

Eviel Cordoves. Maykel Chang. Odisnel Cooper. Maykel Galindo. Yordany Alvarez. Osvaldo Alonso.

Those are just a few of the players unavailable to suit up for the Cuban National Team because they decided to pursue a professional career in the United States. Galindo had a rocky MLS career before signing for USL-Pro side LA Blues in 2012, Alvarez is an impact substitute for Real Salt Lake and Alonso is the glue in Seattle Sounder's midfield.

While the best Cuban players are unable to play for their national teams after defecting (an ugly word left over from the Cold War), several of the island's budding talents are often left behind during trips to the North American mainland.

During the last round of Olympic qualifying in October, with their hopes at advancing to the next round already dashed, Cuba elected to bring an inexperienced squad to an away date in Toronto, Canada. This could be interpreted as just giving first team experience to fringe players or blending younger guys into the senior squad, but I saw this as a move to protect their prized assets from the prospect of desertion.

For that trip to Toronto, head coach Raul Gonzalez only brought 15 players with him, leaving behind 3 regular starters and 4 other impact players who had either started or played significant minutes off the bench in the previous qualifying matches. Leaving 7 healthy key players out of a trip while not bringing a full squad is quite an adjustment, and much more significant than just keeping established players on the bench.

If the plan was to protect potential star players from deserting Cuba, then that plan backfired. Three young players brought on that trip to Canada - Maykel Chang, Eviel Cordoves, and Odisnel Cooper - all left the team's hotel prior to the match and immediately headed to the border crossing at Niagara Falls. Once they were granted entrance to the United States, the three players (along with the team's psychologist and an older player, Reysander Fernández) filed for asylum and received legal status under a special immigration policy this country has for Cubans. Those three players all signed with the Charleston Battery of USL-Pro (follow the team at chssoccer.net), the club that Osvaldo Alonso and former Cuban teammate Lester Moré once called home. At the Battery, Cooper is the first choice keeper, Cordoves one of a number of strong forwards in rotation, and Chang is a dangerous and skilled midfield option off the bench.

Cuba looks to avoid a similar humiliation in 2013.

The squad selected by Cuba is completely domestically-based, as the national team does not recognize any player who leaves the island to live in the United States or elsewhere. Mexico is the only other team at this Gold Cup with a domestically-based squad.

Notable players not on the squad for this tournament are Marcel Hernández, who started in 7 of 8 games during Cuba's qualification and trophy winning run in the 2012 Caribbean Cup, and Carlos Francisco, who started every match. Francisco is just 23 years old and Hernández will turn 24 during the Gold Cup. Many believe that Cuba left behind two of the youngest regular starters for the national team out of fear of losing them in a tournament taking place on American soil.

Cuba has faced the specter of player defection in every Gold Cup in which it has participated. Cuban players have sought asylum in the 2002, 2005, 2007, 2011 editions of the tournament, in addition to Olympic and World Cup qualification matches. Cuba didn't qualify for the 2009 tournament and no players successfully left the team in 2003.

Speaking of the absence of Marcel Hernández, the young midfield sensation who scored 4 goals against Suriname last year, head coach Walter Benítez told Cuban press:

Marcel llegó a la convocatoria con molestias en la rodilla que le impidieron participar en numerosos encuentros con su provincia y le dimos tiempo para recuperarse. Luego se incorporó a los entrenamientos pero consideramos que por su déficit de preparación y minutos jugados en el nacional no cumpliría con los objetivos trazados para la Copa de Oro.

Marcel arrived to the call-up with problems in his knee that prevented him from participating in a number of scrimmages and we gave him time to recover. After he was incorporated into training but we think that because of his lack of preparation and minutes played in the league he would not accomplish the targeted goals for the Gold Cup.

This argument doesn't go very far to cover up the concerns many already had. If the knock Hernández picked up during league play in Cuba was serious, then why was he called into the pre-selection training camp? Head coach Walter Benitez asserts that Hernández will not be making the trip to the United States for "technical reasons" and not anything personal or political. However, as the eternal skeptic that I am, after having accomplished everything he can in football on the island I think Hernández made the mistake of mentioning a possible desire to live in the US. This leaked information made its way to the team management, and the decision came down that Cuba's most exciting new star would sit out the 2013 Gold Cup.

The simple fact that the threat of defection is even a consideration as we examine Hernández's absence illustrates the unique pressures and challenges that Cuba faces every time the national team leaves its island for a tournament.

For some old stories and hopefully some new ones, check out dohertysoccer.com

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