TAMPA — A day after they fled from their team hotel in Tampa, five Cuban soccer players appeared on Spanish language television, saying they planned to seek political asylum and play professionally in South Florida.
The players, including the team captain, said they hatched the plan to defect before they left Cuba. They put their plan into action Tuesday night, following a 1-1 tie against the United States in an Olympic qualifier at Raymond James Stadium.
"We were sitting down to eat and we slipped out a side entrance of the hotel and ran for it," said Yenier Bermudez, the team captain, wearing his red national team jersey.
The players left without their passports, wearing only the clothes on their backs. None have family in the United States.
Wednesday night, they appeared on WLTV (Univision) in Miami, appealing to viewers to help them begin their new lives in exile.
"Principally, we want to play for the MLS, and play professional soccer," said goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda.
Thirteen remaining Cubans practiced in Tampa on Wednesday, a day after the 1-1 tie game.
When the team returned to the Doubletree Hotel on W Cypress Street in Tampa, Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez waved away questions from reporters.
The missing players had not yet reported to authorities late Wednesday.
The Miami Herald reported that the five players escaped in the waiting car of a friend who took them to Lake Worth. There, they bought a cell phone, called a lawyer, and ate a Cuban meal.
"We're fine, calm, feeling hopeful about our new lives,'' team captain Yenier Bermudez told the Herald in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
"We knew when we got to the United States what our plan was. It's something the five of us talked about a lot, so we were ready when the time came,'' he said. "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.''
Luis Hernandez, president of the Soccer Association of Cuba, was the only team official to address the media during Wednesday's practice, reported the Associated Press. "Tomorrow we have a very important game … and we are concentrating on that," he said, alluding to a game today against Honduras.
Asked what the team would do without the five players, Hernandez said, "Win," with or without them.
Steve Torres, a spokesman for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, which organized the Men's 2008 Olympic Qualification games, spent Wednesday afternoon with the Cuban team. The Under-23 soccer teams from eight nations are competing for two spots in Beijing this summer.
CONCACAF and team officials did not identify the five missing players. But the Associated Press reported that the jerseys of the men playing during Wednesday's session revealed that five players were gone: in addition to Bermudez, the 22-year-old captain, and Miranda, the 21-year-old goalkeeper, they are: Erlys Garcia Baro, Yordany Alvarez and Loanni Prieto, all 22.
As Cuban players mingled in the hotel lobby Wednesday evening with the Honduran team, Cuban security guards sat at the center of the room.
Vicente Williams, a Honduran soccer official, said the departures surprised him. Of the remaining 13 Cuban players, one is forced to sit the next game out because of penalties.
The minimum amount of players per team is 11. The Cuban team has only 12 usable players, so there won't be much substituting.
Marcos Ommati, a spokesman with professional soccer team Miami FC, said the five missing players are expected to practice with the team this weekend in Miami.
He said it was doubtful any of the men could get a roster spot on the team this season, though, because the team was full and the men needed to clear immigration hurdles.
He said he had not spoken with the players and did not know their whereabouts, but said someone told him to expect the players.
Immigration and Customs officials throughout Florida have been notified that the players are missing, but there had been no contact with them as of Wednesday evening, said Zachary Mann, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.
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.
Ralph Fernandez, a prominent Tampa Cuban activist and attorney who has handled previous defection cases, said he began receiving calls about the missing teammates on Tuesday.
In a situation like this, Cuban government officials typically force the team to come home immediately, he said. That hasn't happened. "Something must be going on," Fernandez said.
Only an extensive criminal record that includes acts of terrorism or counter intelligence against the United States would keep U.S. officials from granting asylum, Fernandez said.
"What's great about this is two years from now, hopefully the star players for the Cuba team will be playing for the United States, because everybody wants to come to America," he said.
This story contains information from the Associated Press and Times staff writers David Adams, Alexandra Zayas, Kevin Graham and Rebecca Catalanello.