In a quarter of a century, the number of such defectors has exceeded 50!
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is in the United States, a tournament for national teams affiliated with this confederation. It is held every two years, and since 1991, it has always taken place in the United States (except for three occasions when two or three countries hosted the competition). The Cuban national team is also participating in the tournament, and for its football players, traveling to the United States for matches is not just a football event but a chance for a new life.
During the current tournament, four players deserted from the national team camp - Roberney Caballero, Carlos Denilson Milanes, Neisser Sando, and Jassael Herrera did not attend the team's flight from Miami to Houston after losing to Guatemala. But the escapes didn't end there: goalkeeper Sandi Sanchez fled during the last match against Canada. He was replaced by reserve goalkeeper Nelson Johnston in the 61st minute of the game (and he immediately conceded a goal), after which the goalkeeper was nowhere to be seen. The team's doctor, who disappeared several hours before the start of the match, was also missing. Sanchez's scheme was executed perfectly: he was very upset about being substituted, but while everyone watched the Cuban team concede goals, he slipped away somewhere. This Gold Cup set a record for the number of desertions - for the first time in the tournament, five football players left the national team, along with a medical staff member.
Since 1999, the number of defector football players has exceeded 50. It's not only football players who flee, but also baseball players and athletes from other sports. Various Cuban delegations lost around 30 athletes this year.
What happens to Cuban football players afterward? Some even play in the MLS!
After the 1959 revolution, which brought Fidel Castro to power, Cubans received a special status that the United States government did not grant to other immigrants. Until 1995, anyone who arrived in the United States by any means - by boat, land, or as tourists - could stay and legalize their status. In 1980, the Mariel boatlift occurred due to the country's economic downturn and protests caused by dissatisfaction with the Castro regime.
Over 125,000 people left Cuba in six months, which led the United States to declare a state of emergency and prohibit the admission of migrants: those refugees caught by the U.S. Coast Guard were sent back by sea, and those who managed to reach land were arrested. In September 1994, the Bill Clinton administration signed a migration agreement: now, those intercepted at sea were placed in asylum camps, and the minimum level of migrant admission was set at 20,000 people per year. In 1995, the agreement was supplemented (it was named "wet feet, dry feet"): those who managed to reach land were allowed to stay in the United States and obtain citizenship after one year. In 2017, this rule was repealed by Barack Obama.
So, for football players who arrive in the United States legally (i.e., with a visa), staying there during the tournament without risking their lives is considered the simplest form of migration. Goalkeeper Rodni Valdes established the tendency for such escapes: he eluded his teammates in Winnipeg with the Cuban national team at the Pan American Games. During the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, two players from the national team went to the lobby of their hotel in Los Angeles to "make a phone call" and disappeared into the home of the nearest relative. Striker Mikel Galindo deserted in Seattle while representing Cuba in the 2005 Gold Cup. By the way, he established himself in American football: he played 74 matches for Chivas before playing for teams in lower divisions.
2007 the tournament became the occasion for perhaps the most famous Cuban football defection when Osvaldo Alonso fled the national team. The midfielder was a rising star and captain of Cuba U23 before making it to the senior squad. In Houston, he went to a Walmart supermarket, where he separated from his teammates, quietly left the store, and ran away. He walked several blocks before finding a Spanish-speaking passerby to ask if he could use his phone. Then he called his friends in Miami and took a bus to Florida, for which a Mexican man bought him a $100 ticket. Later that same year, he had a trial with the Charleston Battery, from where he joined the Seattle Sounders and stayed for an incredible nine years. He currently plays for Atlanta United.
Lester More, who defected on the same trip in 2007 as Alonso, never made it to the MLS team, but he played for a while with the Battery - a team that enthusiastically welcomes Cuban defectors. Seven U23 players escaped from their hotel during the Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa in 2008: their flight attracted media attention, resulting in offers to try their luck with the Miami team, but only one of them eventually made it to the MLS.
2017 Brian Rosales, who played for Inter Miami, was almost caught during his escape. The coaching staff of the Cuban national team discovered that the player was talking on the phone with a Mexican friend and organized surveillance on him - by that time, four players had already fled the team. They tried to persuade him to stay, assuring him that there would be plenty of opportunities, and Rosales would be one of the first to leave when the Cuban government approved his contract abroad. But he still ran away. As he exited the hotel, one of the coaches tried to stop him, but Rosales was already met by a friend's car, which he jumped into. There was a chase, but the Cubans broke free and ultimately stayed in the United States. He was accepted by the Fortuna team, which actively embraced Cuban defectors and helped them find their way.
Of course, only some are fortunate - many are left without the opportunity to fulfill their dream of playing at a high level. But one thing they surely achieve is improving their lives slightly better than they could have been back in their homeland.