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ESPN Hearts Castro? By: Joseph D'Hippolito
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, October 27, 2008

As fear about high finance combined with the irrelevant chatter of political analysts dominate Americans’ lives, a young Cuban soccer player made a fateful decision.

Reinier Alcantara – who was in Washington, D.C., for Cuba’s World Cup qualifier against the United States – chose to plunge himself into this anxious, obsessive environment. But Alcantara didn’t care about stock portfolios, global warming or pundits’ opinions about who “won” a televised political debate.

Alcantara sought what he desired most and what Americans routinely take for granted: freedom and dignity.

“There is no future for me in Cuba, no hope,” the 26-year-old forward told the Miami Herald through an interpreter after defecting October 9. “You can dream there but your dreams can’t come true. It’s a dead end for athletes and for people of all professions. We hear promises but they’re never fulfilled.

“Here, you dream and if you work hard enough and sacrifice, your dreams can be realized.”

Alcantara reflects a trend in Cuban soccer. Teammate Pedro Faife defected the same day in a separate move. In March, seven players from Cuba’s under-23 men’s national team defected in Tampa during Olympic qualifying. Cuban players also took advantage of competitions in the United States to defect in 2007, 2004, and 2002.

Not only soccer players want to leave. In 2005, 11 singers from the 40-member national choir defected while touring Canada.

But if Cuba is the Marxist paradise that academics, actors and assorted poseurs claim it to be, then why would anyone want to leave?

Though athletes in Communist countries receive privileges unavailable to the average citizen, Cuban soccer players must eat bad, rationed food and play on poorly maintained fields, Alcantara told The Washington Post. Though Adidas sponsors all of Cuba’s national teams, players lack sufficient equipment and uniforms, Alcantara said.

Cuban officials know the truth. When the national soccer team plays overseas, they collect the players’ passports and disconnect the telephones in the players’ hotel rooms. When the players practice, burly security guards – with orders to shoot anyone trying to defect – watch their every move.

“No one on the team trusts anyone,” said Alcantara, who added that he believes at least one member of Cuba’s delegation spies for the government.

Alcantara had considered defecting for about 16 months, he told the Herald, before making his move.

After the team returned from practice, Alcantara lingered in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Washington’s Crystal City district. He saw the coaches enter a gift shop, slipped security, walked down a hotel hallway, went through a service door, glanced quickly over his shoulder – and began the biggest sprint of his life.

“I realized it was my only opportunity,” Alcantara told the Post. “I started running like crazy and didn’t look behind.”

Alcantara sprinted about eight blocks before hailing a taxi.

“I told the taxi driver, ‘Drive me far away,’” he said to the Post. “I was so nervous. I didn’t know where we were going but I knew I was in a free country and everything would be OK.”

The ride lasted about half an hour before ending at a McDonald’s. Alcantara paid the driver in dollars, borrowed his cell phone, and called a friend who lived north of Washington. That night, Alcantara slept in a cheap hotel, afraid that Cuban officials were close behind.

The next morning, Alcantara’s friend picked him up and drove him to Atlanta. On the way, they stopped to buy food, clothes and toiletries. When Alcantara visited an American grocery store for the first time, “his eyes welled with tears,” the Herald reported.

“It’s beautiful to see the amount and quality of food here, the choices, the possibilities,” Alcantara told the Herald. “Meanwhile, people are hungry in Cuba, scraping to get by, obsessing about where they’ll find dinner. I have to be careful with all this great food. If I keep eating, I won’t be able to run anymore and I’ll get out of shape.”

Amazingly, some who are accustomed to eating often and well dismiss the natural human desire for freedom and dignity that motivates Alcantara and those like him.

Paul Gardner, a veteran British soccer writer, and ESPN’s Andrew Hush criticized the seven Cubans who defected during Olympic qualifying for betraying their teammates and turning the competition into a farce.

Before the defections, Cuba surprised observers by tying the United States, 1-1. In its first game afterward, Cuba had to field 10 players – one less than a full side – and no substitutes in a 2-0 loss to Honduras.

“The fact is that Cuba’s draw with the USA was a result that greatly enhanced the nation’s chances of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics,” Hush wrote. “Though the defectors have their reasons for what they did, the fact is that they have betrayed the players with whom they boarded the plane to America.”

Gardner wagged his rhetorical finger more sternly while quoting a Cuban soccer official for his column in the magazine Soccer America.

This was a very irresponsible act of cowardice by these five players, Antonio Garces, a Cuban soccer federation official, told Reuters in Havana, They have betrayed their homeland.

A bitter verdict, but one that I find it impossible to disagree with. To cynically desert your team, to leave your teammates in the lurch is not an action that elicits any admiration in this column.

It is, in fact, an action that ought not to go unpunished….

Hush even suggested that more security be used to prevent future defections. In the process, he betrayed his own political ignorance.

“The most obvious (question) concerns security around the Cuban team. Of course, 24-hour surveillance is neither possible nor preferred – these are free men, after all – but their escape seems to have been accomplished with minimal effort. (Emphasis added.)

Would Hush care to explain how athletes from a totalitarian regime can be considered, in any meaningful sense, “free”?

Gardner ended his column by calling the defections “a thoroughly sordid episode, a slap in the face of sportsmanship and fair play,” while Hush concluded with one of the more understated descriptions of Fidel Castro’s Caribbean Alcatraz

“One thing is for sure, the remaining Cuban players will have no better chance to defect. Should they do so, it will be yet another body blow to the world game in one of its most unique nations.” (Emphasis added.)

Alcantara felt empathy for his former teammates as he watched their televised 6-1 defeat to the United States two nights after his defection. But Alcantara felt neither regrets nor doubts.

“I love my team but this is my life and my future, and I had to do this,” he told the Herald. “I feel for the first time that my future will be bright.”

Joseph D’Hippolito is a columnist for Frontpagemag.com, whose main focuses are religion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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