On Friday night, Cuba’s national soccer team was facing a dilemma.
Prior to the squad’s World Cup qualifier against Canada at BMO Field, only 11 players were included on Cuba’s official roster, leaving it without substitutes.
Having traveled to Toronto with 15 players, four were nowhere to be found, and given the history of Cuban athletes defecting abroad, few people, including the club’s head coach, Alexander “Chandler” Gonzalez, were surprised.
“We all know the situation of Cuban players when they travel to the north with the American dream,” said Gonzalez, in the post-match press conference.
He went on to identify what he called flaws in FIFA’s rules that encourage repeats of situations like the one from Friday, claiming that the organization doesn’t allow Cuban players to play in leagues outside of the country.
“If FIFA would allow these players to play in other leagues, perhaps this wouldn’t happen in the future. It can affect the sport in different situations. Obviously, it’s a difficult situation for the team.”
There is no specific law citing that Cuban players aren’t allowed to play outside of their country. And in fact, there are a handful of Cuban players in Major League Soccer.
However, in almost each case, the player has defected from Cuba, and therefore will almost certainly not reappear for the national team.
Similar situations to what unfolded on Friday have occurred in Canada before.
At the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, goalkeeper Rodney Valdes defected to the United States along with numerous other Cuban athletes who were participating in different events.
Gold Cups in the United States have also been marred by Cubans defecting with notable incidents in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2011.
It’s become something of a trend when Cuba participates in tournaments abroad and Friday was just another instance.
The match ended 3-0 for Canada, a scoreline that seemed respectable given the injuries Gonzalez claimed his players were fighting.
“There were two players who were injured. One of the players had five stitches on his leg and he played the whole game. The other player was also seriously injured and he played the whole game.”
In the post-match press conference, it was asked whether the 11 players that Cuba fielded were, in fact, actually players and not coaches.
“All eleven players are soccer players,” responded Gonzalez. He then joked that he was hoping some of the coaches would be able to play.
Given the political situation of the isolated Caribbean nation, it’s a struggle for Cuba to compete at the same level as other teams in CONCACAF.
As Gonzalez put it, “Cuban footballers lack the amount of high-quality football matches that allow the team to grow. Technically and tactically, they exceed expectations.
“But the competitive level is low because they barely play and we don’t have the opportunity to play.”
“Since the last match against Honduras, they haven’t played at this level in a month’s time. For them to grow, they need to play this level of competition, that they played tonight, on a consistent basis.”