Three Cuban soccer players who defected in Toronto latest in long line of athletes, artists and others seeking better life

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The word defector has an almost quaint Cold War resonance, conjuring in mind pictures of people scrambling over some bleak east European border out of  an early John le Carré novel.

But more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, defections still take place from the remaining communist-ruled countries such as China, North Korea and Cuba. Canadians got a reminder on Saturday when it was confirmed that three members of the Cuban men's national soccer team defected on Thursday, on the eve of a match with Canada in Toronto, The Canadian Press reported.

Suspicions were raised when Cuba managed to field only the bare minimum 11 players against the Canadians, who won the match 3-0.

The world soccer sanctioning body, FIFA, confirmed via email to CP that three players had defected. A fourth player who also didn't make the match turned out to be sick.

Cuban coach Alexander Gonzalez lamented the men's decision.

"As with any Cuban sport team that travels around the world, they're all chasing the American dream," he told CP. "And it's difficult to try to keep the team together ... Obviously it's a difficult situation for the team and it's tough for me to talk about it."

Gonzalez was alluding to the goal of Cuban athletes who decide to abandon family and friends in their impoverished island nation for the chance to become rich and famous in American professional sports, especially baseball.

And the U.S. government makes it fairly easy. Under its longstanding "wet foot, dry foot" policy, any Cuban who steps onto American soil has the right to become a resident there.

The policy is aimed largely at those who risk the 145-kilometre voyage between Cuba and Florida in often overloaded and decrepit boats, but it applies equally to athletes who ditch their government minders during foreign trips.

[Related: Glut of Cuban defectors seek Major League Baseball jobs ]

CP noted that just last January, two players from Cuba's women's team defected during a CONCACAF match in Vancouver.

And last summer another member of the Cuban men's team defected during an Olympic qualifying match in Nashville, Tenn. More than a dozen Cuban soccer players have defected in the last decade.

In 2007, Osvaldo Alonso claimed asylum while the Cuban men's team was in Houston for a CONCACAF Gold Cup match, walking away from the team while it was shopping in Walmart for goods to take home to their families, he told the Toronto Sun.

"I saw the opportunity to walk away, so I did it," Alonso, who now plays for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, told the Sun.

"My plan was to stay in the U.S.  I found somebody in the street. I asked if they spoke Spanish ... I asked to speak on the phone and I called a friend in Miami. They took me to the Greyhounds so I took the bus to Miami."

"I wanted to play professional soccer. I wanted to play at a high level. I did it for that."

Cuba has proven a steady source of players for Major League Baseball, including pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who defected a tournament in Holland after a previous attempt failed, according to Sports Illustrated.

Others include Alexei Ramirez, 1997 World Series MVP Livan Hernandez of the Florida Marlins and four-time World Series winner Orland Hernandez of the New York Yankees.

Defections haven't been limited to sports stars.

Earlier this year, the Miami Herald reported Glenda Murillo, the 24-year-old daughter of Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo, crossed into the United States from Mexico and made her way to relatives in Florida. Her economist father reportedly is in charge of overseeing reforms to Cuba's economic system.

The BBC reported that last April, actors Javier Nunez Florian and Anailin de la Rua, who starred in a film about defectors, actually defected during a stopover in Miami on the way to a New York film festival showing the movie.

"In part, it's hard to leave your family and friends behind," de la Rua  told Reuters, according to the BBC.

"But at the same time you do it so you can help them, there's no future in Cuba."

Last month, two principal dancers for Cuba's Ballet de Carmaguey defected during the company's tour of Ecuador and travelled to Miami, where they performed at an international ballet festival, the Herald reported.

And last year, five members of the National Ballet of Cuba stayed in Canada after their company performed here, according to The Associated Press.