Honduras May Not Play Cuba

Two more Cuban soccer players defected from the Under-23 national team in Tampa on Wednesday evening, bringing to seven the number who deserted the squad since their surprising 1-1 tie against the United States in an Olympic qualifying match Tuesday.

Defender Yendry Diaz and midfielder Eder Roldan, both 20, sneaked away from the team hotel and are with friends in Tampa, according to two sources close to the players. They plan to drive to Lake Worth, where they will join their five teammates who defected a night earlier.

The loss of seven players cast into doubt whether the Cuban squad will be able to field a team for Thursday’s 5:30 p.m. match against Honduras and continue in the qualifying tournament for the 2008 Olympics. Eleven players remain on the Cuban roster, and one — forward Roberto Linares — is ineligible to play against Honduras because he is suspended with a red card from the USA match.

Meanwhile, the five players who deserted Tuesday night are in Lake Worth trying to plan the next stage of their transition to new lives as exiles.

Not even their families knew that team captain Yenier Bermudez, goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda, defender Erlys Garcia Baro, midfielder Yordany Alvarez and defender Loanni Prieto planned to defect. But after Tuesday night’s game, they bolted from a Tampa hotel, slipped into the waiting car of a mutual friend, and headed east.

They bought a cellphone, contacted a lawyer, and celebrated their newfound freedom with a nice Cuban meal.

”We’re fine, calm, feeling hopeful about our new lives,” Bermudez told The Miami Herald by phone Wednesday night. “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.”

All five players had participated in Tuesday’s game, knowing the adventure that was to come hours later. The team bus got back to the Doubletree Airport Hotel around 10:45 p.m., and by 11, the five players had left behind life as they knew it.

They plan to seek political asylum in the coming days, and then begin their quest for jobs in professional soccer — either with a Major League Soccer or United Soccer League team.

Luiz Muzzi, general manager of Miami FC, the local USL team, was contacted by a friend of the players’ and said he will host a tryout for them next week.

”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.”

The decision to leave Cuba and loved ones behind was a tortuous one, but Bermudez said he and his teammates felt they would never realize their dreams if they didn’t take this chance.

”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,” he said. “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.”

The Cuban delegation was meeting Thursday morning with officials of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football to decide whether Cuba would remain in the tournament with a limited roster, or be forced to withdraw. CONCACAF spokesman Steve Torres said: `The situation is still under review.”

”Cuba has plans to keep playing in this tournament, and we don’t want to forfeit our next two matches,” coach Raul Gonzalez said. The top two teams in the eight-team tournament earn berths to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

This was not the first time Cuban soccer players defected in recent years.

Rey Angel Martinez and Alberto Delgado defected during the 2002 Gold Cup in Los Angeles. Maykel Galindo bolted from the team’s Seattle hotel during the 2005 Gold Cup, and last year, Lester More and Osvaldo Alonso defected during the Gold Cup in Houston.

Bermudez called More and Alonso on Wednesday to seek advice.

”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. “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.”


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