Behind the Caribbean Curtain - Part Two

It is a Cold War stance still persisting between two countries 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, and it is keeping fresh ideas, infrastructure, and investment out of Cuba and potential players, coaches, and managers from the rest of the world.
— Jordan Florit

By Jordan Florit

Rum, cigars, sugar - staple Cuban exports that would not surprise anyone. Footballers, however, are not known as one of Cuba’s better products. It’s conceivable, if not most likely, they would be if Cuba did so. Instead, they don’t export them - the footballers steal themselves away.

Two such players ply their trade for Miami FC, a club founded in May 2015 and co-owned by AC Milan great Paolo Maldini.

In 2015, whilst on international duty for Cuba at the Gold Cup, Dario Suarez walked away from the team as they shopped in Walmart, but he wasn't defecting due to politics.

As William LeoGrande, a professor of Government at the American University School of Public Affairs and a Latin American expert, says, "most of [those] who are defecting are not defecting for political reasons. They're defecting for the obvious economic gain. The embargo is really part of the problem here. If it wasn't for that, a Cuban athlete could come and play professional soccer in the US, maintain his Cuban residency and citizenship, and go back and play for the Cuban national team whenever they wanted to.”

Suarez at first played for Miami-based amateur side Fortuna SC, but quickly moved on to AFC Ann Arbor in the National Premier Soccer League. There, he put in several stellar performances, such as a 4-goal haul in week 11 of the 2017 season, that landed him the NPSL Player of the Week. It was performances and accolades such as these that eventually attracted Miami FC to acquire his services ahead of the 2018 season.

It must have been a surreal moment for the former Havana player.

“I explained to my father [in 2015] that I wanted to play as a professional; my dream is to return and defend the Cuban team colours," Suarez told Gear Patrol in a November 2016 interview, "I only came to the US to play at my maximum level. My dream is also that the rules will change to allow me to come back and play for the national team at my maximum level; that is the dream of all the Cuban players in the US.”

LeoGrande, who authored Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington & Havana, has explained that "it would be the best of both worlds.”

“They'd be able to play professionally in the US and make a great salary as a result of that but also still be able to go home and see their families and play for their national team.”

But for now, despite Cuba lifting a restriction on athletes competing abroad, the US embargo prevents players from playing in the US while maintaining their home on the Caribbean island. It doesn't look set to change either: a State Department seminar on Cuba scheduled for summer 2018 was cancelled, further highlighting the differences between the State Department and White House policy when it comes to their neighbour.

The event, "Cuba under Diaz-Canel," the Cuban President, looked to be progressive in nature with a number of experts supportive of policies brought in under Barack Obama's administration set to talk. But Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio appeared to have influenced its cancellation. One of his staff members said a call had been made to the White House and that Rubio himself believed the event would have undermined Donald Trump's stance on Cuba.

Also defecting that day were Ariel Martinez, who joined Suarez at Miami FC, Keyler García, and Arael Argüelles. Garcia and Arguelles, by all accounts, no longer play professional football despite being just 25 and 28 when they defected.

It is a Cold War stance still persisting between two countries 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, and it is keeping fresh ideas, infrastructure, and investment out of Cuba and potential players, coaches, and managers from the rest of the world.

In 2015, Barack Obama’s decision to offer Cuba a warm embrace came too late for some of island’s footballers and too early for those who were still there when Donald Trump began to reverse his predecessor’s policies. It was a case of the former for one of the MLS’s most accomplished players in its 23-year history.

Eight years prior to Dario Suarez’s walk-out, Cuba were in Houston for a 2007 Gold Cup game against Honduras. Two key players defected - Lester More and Osvaldo Alonso. More was already 30 years old and Alonso, while just 21, had already won a title in Cuba, as well as acquiring the captaincy of his country. Both would join Charleston Battery in 2008 and it was the start of a record-breaking history in the US Open Cup for one of them.

Osvaldo Alonso found himself playing in the US Open Cup Final just 15 months after he had walked away from Cuba's national team camp. It was only the second time a team from outside the MLS had reached the final since the league's inception in 1996 and it was de facto second tier Charleston Battery that Alonso was representing. It began a record-setting run of five consecutive US Open Cup Final appearances by the combative and bustling midfielder.

That first appearance ended in defeat for Alonso, but it was an impressive season for him. He scored twice in six cup games and twice in the league, and was the recipient of no fewer than four individual accolades at the end of the season. A move to the MLS beckoned.

Seattle Sounders acquired his signature and Alonso continued his cup exploits, reaching the final another four years running and winning it three times on the trot - both record-breaking achievements. The run ended in 2012 with Cup Final defeat to Sporting Kansas City.

Even then, Alonso left his mark on the competition: he was named the Player of the Tournament after scoring four goals and contributing two assists in four games, a year on from winning Man of the Match and scoring in their 2011 Cup Final victory. Still today, Seattle Sounders remain the only team to win consecutive US Open Cups in the modern professional era.

2013 was a brief hiatus in Seattle Sounders' cup prowess, but they were back in 2014 to win it for a record-equalling fourth time. For Alonso, it was his fourth Cup Winners medal, a joint-record, alongside two Runners Up medals.

Defection isn’t the only option though. In the late ‘90s a few players trickled out by legal means and twenty years later the same is happening. Back in 1997, a tall striker with 14-years’ service, born in the city of his club, won the Cuban Player of the Year Award, and a year later immigrated to Canada. His name is Eduardo Sebrango and he went on to be one of the most-decorated Cuban football exports since the Revolution.

The dual citizenship Cuban-Canadian was born in Sancti Spiritus and would hit 75 goals in 123 appearances for the club of the same name, alongside 13 in 23 for his country, before going on to become a success for two of Canada’s most illustrious teams – Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps.

He was at Montreal for their time in the United Soccer League, the North American Soccer League, and finally, two years after the club became an MLS franchise in 2010, he came out of retirement for one last hurrah. 14 years after leaving his homeland, Sebrango would finally play in the US’s top flight. At the age of 38 he made 7 appearances for Montreal before retiring from professional football for good. He had five USL First Division titles to his name and the 2008 Canadian Championship Golden Boot.

As dictated by Cuba’s own rules at the time, his departure from Cuba made him ineligible to represent his country, and what could have been a stellar career in Caribbean international football was cut short at just two years. It is a policy that still divides Cuba’s football fans to this day.

Humberto Perez Noa has been a resident of Zulueta all his life and has been involved in the grassroots organisation of football there ever since its foundation. He has been bravely vocal about what Cuba needs in order to improve on the pitch.

"Much talked about and controversial is the notion of having Cuban players in foreign competitions, in professional football. I think that, without fear, without any fear for anything, having players in those competitions will improve our level."

Cuba’s National Institute for Sport, Physical Education & Recreation (INDER), the body ultimately responsible for the national team, state that their, “will is that anybody who has left the country in a legal manner….that hasn’t violated the regulations the sport federations have put in place……will be evaluated by the relevant authorities and if they meet all the requirements they will be able to be part of the national selection.”

That position was made a mockery of in November 2018, however, when Norwich City’s Onel Hernandez was called up by the national team to face the Dominican Republic in a CONCACAF Nations League qualifier and then did not feature. GolCuba, a YouTube channel “dedicated exclusively to Cuban football through information and analysis about current issues,” stated that Hernandez “did not get permission from the Cuban authorities to play for the country,” but believe it will be “solved” this year. The authorities had said the same last year.

For many fans, enough is enough. Some are even calling for public protest, calling on all Cuban football fans to gather at the national stadium and call for the resignation of INDER President Antonio Becalli, as well as petition for FIFA intervention. In 2017, FIFA President Gianni Infantino embarked on a tour of CONCACAF member associations and his visit to Cuba saw him meet with the President of the Asociacion de Futbol Cuba (AFC) Luis Hernandez and the local football authorities. After attending an U17 women’s league game at a FIFA funded artificial pitch, Infantino praised the AFC for its “motivation to provide increased access to football for boys and girls who wish to play the beautiful game in Cuba.”

The same fans accuse Becalli and the AFC of frittering away the money FIFA gives them on travelling around the world promoting Cuban sport, instead of investing it in the game, and would rather see their national team not participate in tournaments than see them humiliated and depleted from desertions.

There are those who sympathise with INDER’s stance. Those who do, believe that there is a difference between Cuban footballers who live abroad and players who defect as economic migrants from the country that made them. Since a 2016 ruling came in, players who leave Cuba with the government’s blessing are expected to pay taxes to Cuba on their salary - it is worth noting that the same applies in the US - whilst those who desert would not be doing so. They feel deserters have betrayed their nation, using the training Cuba gave them as a tool for their own economic gain.

Equally emotive as it is a political, the issue is a microcosm of the larger Cuban psyche, and it’s not letting football off lightly.

The third part of Behind The Caribbean Curtain will be published next Wednesday.

Words by Jordan Florit.

Original photograph by Jordan Florit & artwork by FATC - all rights reserved.

Jordan Florit