Seven Cuban soccer players slip away from team hotel in Tampa

Updated: March 14, 2008, 12:44 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

TAMPA, Fla. -- The day after five members of Cuba's under-23 Olympic soccer team left their hotel with the intention of defecting, two more players disappeared Wednesday night.

Yendry Diaz told ESPN International on the phone that he and Eder Roldan also had left the Cuban team.

Diaz and Roldan are with friends in Tampa, but intend to join their fellow defector teammates in Lake Worth, Fla., according to the Miami Herald.

The original five -- Jose Manuel Miranda, Erlys Garcia Baro, Yenier Bermudez, Yordany Alvarez and Loanni Prieto -- left Tuesday after a 1-1 draw against the United States in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa.

The five already are in Lake Worth, a town north of Boca Raton, according to The Herald, which reached the players by phone Wednesday.

"'We're fine, calm, feeling hopeful about our new lives," Bermudez told The Herald. "Of course, we're nervous because we're young, have no family here, and we don't yet know the way of life here, but we hope the Cuban and American communities will help us get started."

Their first order of business when they got away from the hotel on Tuesday was to buy a cell phone, contact a lawyer -- and celebrate with a Cuban meal, according to The Herald.

"Of course, my heart will be in Cuba with my family, but I want to have the freedom to better my life, to play professional soccer, to be the best I can be, and for that we had to make this sacrifice," Bermudez said in The Herald. "The key now is to get the legal paperwork out of the way as quickly as possible so we can get on with our plans."

Luiz Muzzi, general manager of United Soccer League club Miami FC, told The Herald that he was planning on hosting a tryout for them next week, after he was contacted by a friend of the players'.

"I watched their game against the U.S. on TV, and I thought the Cuban team played very well," Muzzi said. "We were kind of scouting that game because anytime a Cuban team comes to the United States, there's a chance someone might defect."

Bermudez told The Herald that he has contacted Lester More and Osvaldo Alonso for advice; the two had defected in 2007 during the Gold Cup in Houston.

"They told us they're happy for us, and that we have to be patient, but little by little, everything will work out," Bermudez said in The Herald. "Even though we are a little nervous, we know there is a very large community of Cubans here in South Florida, and that makes us feel more at home. We hope to make them proud."

An on-the-field consequence of the seven players' desertion is that Cuba was forced to field a short-handed team in Thursday's CONCACAF Olympic qualifier, which it lost to Honduras 2-0 in Tampa.

"It was a difficult result," Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez said before leaving in the middle of his postgame press conference. He was apparently upset with a question about the possible defection of an assistant coach. "It was hard to play with 10 players. That's asking a lot. But I think we played well."

Only 10 Cuban players were available Thursday night because in addition to the player desertions Roberto Linares was automatically suspended one game for receiving a red card in Tuesday's game.

The Cuban delegation notified the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football earlier Thursday that the team would continue to participate in the tournament, CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer said.

"CONCACAF has been notified by the head of the Cuban delegation that several players have left the team," Blazer said. "CONCACAF has no information on the location of the players or the circumstances surrounding their separation from the delegation."

Cuban sports officials were stunned Thursday by the desertions.

"We feel really badly," Antonio Garces of the Cuban Soccer Association told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Gonzalez on Thursday confirmed to ESPN Deportes that there was no security plan in place around the Cuban team to avoid defections. The team was staying at the Doubletree Hotel Tampa Westshore Airport.

Zachary Mann, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said it's unlikely the agency will learn the men's whereabouts until they come forward. The players likely would be granted political protection under the United States' "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to obtain asylum.

Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said Wednesday the agency had not received any missing persons reports from the team, and officers were not called to the team's hotel to investigate the disappearances

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.