Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cuban player gives the signal, flees to freedom in Charlotte

Cuban player gives the signal, flees to freedom in Charlotte

Yosniel Mesa's uncle helped him defect after last week's match. Mesa to
seek citizenship, team.
By Elisabeth Arriero
Posted: Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2011

The signal came at halftime.

The Cuban soccer player gestured to his uncle in the stands during last
week's Gold Cup match in Charlotte.

"Today's the day," the signal told his Uncle Julio.

Yosniel Mesa wanted to defect. He longed to live and play soccer in the
United States, he told the Observer on Monday night.

After Cuba lost to Mexico 5-0 at Bank of America Stadium, Julio began to
follow the team's bus toward the hotel but lost track of it in traffic

"We started driving around the town like crazy looking for his hotel,"
said Mesa's Uncle Julio, who was reached in Miami but declined to give
his last name. "Nobody wanted to give us any information. It was hard."

After two hours, Mesa's uncle spotted one of the Cuban coaches in the
lobby of an uptown hotel.

Not wanting to tip off the coaches, Mesa's uncle waited in his car
outside the hotel, searching for any sign from his nephew in the hotel.

"It was intense," Uncle Julio said. "We were worried about what we were
doing, but we did what we had to do."

Julio said Cuba often treats traveling athletes "like prisoners,"
prohibiting them from talking to the media or venturing too far.

Eventually, Julio spotted Mesa waving from an eighth-floor window.

Before long, the 27-year-old reserve midfielder took an elevator to the
second floor and then walked down the stairs to the ground floor, where
his uncle picked him up in a Chevy Cobalt. "The escape was a little
difficult, because the trainers were in the lobby at the hotel," Mesa
said. "I had a glass in my hand. If they saw me, I could say I was going
to look for a drink."

But once he reached Julio's car, he felt relieved and happy to see family.

"It was an emotional moment," Julio said. "We were kind of expecting for
him to do this, but we were waiting for his decision."

They drove straight through the night to Miami, where Julio lives.

Mesa left his young daughter and her mother behind in Cuba, he said. He
didn't tell them he hoped not to return. "She's five years old. She
wouldn't have understood," Mesa said of his daughter.

He also didn't want to risk someone foiling his plan.

"It's not an easy decision to make," said Julio, who fled Cuba more than
a decade ago.

Since arriving in Miami on Friday, Mesa has spoken widely with media
about his defection.

"I didn't have anything to lose and everything to gain," Mesa told El
Nuevo Herald.

Mesa told Univision on Sunday that he defected because he wanted the
chance to play professionally. He said he would not have that
opportunity in Cuba, where he played for the Cienfuegos club.

Mesa plans to seek citizenship and to find a team, Julio said.

Cuban athletes are now more likely to want to emigrate to the United
States for economic reasons rather than for political asylum, said
Daniel Lafuente, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation in

"Players can't reach a certain level of stardom in Cuba. The income for
professional sports in Cuba isn't really what it is in America," said
Lafuente, adding that defection is most common among baseball players.

In 2008, seven players defected from the Olympic team during qualifiers
in Tampa, Fla., ESPN reported.

In 2005, professional soccer player Maykal Galindo defected during the
2005 Gold Cup in Seattle, eventually signing with the Major League
Soccer Club Chivas USA in 2007.

Lafuente said he doesn't expect Cuba to withdraw from future
international games.

"Cuba doesn't want to be isolated. They get that from the embargo
policy," he said. "They want to join the international community and
promote their self-power around the world. Doing that through sports is
a lot easier than convincing people that communism is good."


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