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Two more players defect from Cuban soccer team

TAMPA — Cuban soccer coach Raul Gonzalez stormed out of a news conference Thursday night when questions shifted from the game he had just lost to the team's loss of seven players, who are expected to defect.

The question that made the bleary-eyed coach bolt: How do you expect to keep more players from leaving, and is it true that assistant coach Dagoberto Lara has also fled?

Lara was conspicuously absent from the Olympic qualifiers at Raymond James Stadium. And after five team members took off Tuesday night, two more were marked absent on the team's roster Thursday, 20-year-olds Yendry Diaz and Eder Roldan.

The Miami Herald has reported that the two sneaked away from the Doubletree Hotel on Wednesday night and stayed with friends in Tampa, but planned to head to Lake Worth, where their five teammates went.

The Tuesday Five sat down to eat dinner, but then slipped out a side door and ran for it, former team captain Yenier Bermudez told a Spanish television station Wednesday night. They were some of the team's best — starters and MVPs. Goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda, 21, and Yenier Bermudez, Erlys Garcia Baro, Yordany Alvarez and Loanni Prieto, all 22.

Immigration and Customs officials across Florida have not heard from the players. The team members would have a generous U.S. policy toward Cuban defectors in their favor. It allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to obtain asylum.

"We don't deport people to Cuba," said B. John Ovink, a veteran immigration attorney, noting the Cuban Refugee Act of 1966. "Their only obstacles might come if, in Cuba, they have criminal records — which is unlikely, considering they have been allowed to play on the national Olympic qualifying team."

No one with the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, an organization that helps Cubans with their transition in the United States, had heard from the players either.

"We're part of the community if they need us," spokeswoman Sandy Acosta Cox said.

The process to becoming a legal resident doesn't happen quickly, said Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez. Cubans who seek political asylum first seek a work visa for up to a year before applying for permanent resident status.

He called the defections by the soccer players the first test since Raul Castro took over as president.

"And they didn't do anything about this," Fernandez said.

This is the largest defection for the Cuban soccer team in recent history, but it's not the first. Two players bolted from the Gold Cup in 2002, one did in 2005 and two did last year. Several of those players have secured spots on American soccer teams.

Goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda told Univision that his group of five who fled Tuesday wanted to play in the Major League Soccer League.

Fernandez said the players need to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who came before them, and not simply focus on their soccer career expectations.

"You don't come here and defect and claim there is no political undertone to that," he said.

Meanwhile in Tampa, the loss of seven players left the team thin and tired during its qualifying match against Honduras, with 10 eligible players pitted against 11.

Fans cloaked in Cuban flags screamed encouragement, but watched as players limped and collapsed. Lacking substitutes, they couldn't rest. One was too ill to finish the game.

"It's unjust that they did that to their team," said fan Jorge Abelenda. He wondered if the team members could've deserted after ensuring Cuba's win.

"On one hand, you're happy for them," said 23-year-old fan Miguel Fernandez. "On the other, your team is short seven players."

In the end, Honduras beat Cuba, 2-0.

"The team fought until the end," said 22-year-old Francisco Alexei Carrazana, a Cuban team midfielder. "We're all really united."

The team that started 18 strong left for its hotel with 11.

They will be counted in the morning.

This story contains information from the Miami Herald and Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Kevin Graham and Rebecca Catalanello.

What happens next?

Immigration and Customs officials across Florida have been notified of the

missing players. Zachary Mann , a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection,

said none of the Cubans had contacted authorities. If and when they do, they would likely be granted political protection under the United States' "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to obtain asylum.

Two more players defect from Cuban soccer team 03/14/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 2:30pm]

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