Monday, October 13, 2008

Defector Recounts Escape

Defector Recounts Escape
Alcantara One of Two Players to Leave Team During U.S.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008; Page E03

Reinier Alcantara did not believe he would have another opportunity to
pursue freedom, so on Thursday night, as he and his Cuban soccer
teammates were preparing for a team dinner at the Crystal City
Doubletree Hotel, the 26-year-old forward made his break.

Sharing details in a telephone interview with The Washington Post last
night, Alcantara said he was in the lobby, wearing a casual shirt,
shorts and tennis shoes, when he saw the coaches wander into the gift
shop. He rode the escalator down to street level and "started running
like crazy and didn't look behind," he said through an interpreter who
arranged the interview and requested anonymity for political reasons.

After sprinting for about eight blocks, Alcantara said he flagged down a
taxi and, with the few words of English he knew, told the driver, "Go,
go, go!"

About a half-hour later, unaware of where he was, Alcantara said he got
out at a McDonald's, paid the driver with dollars he put aside, and
called a Cuban friend who lived several hours north of Washington. While
he awaited his friend's arrival, he found a cheap hotel and attempted to
sleep, all the while worried he would be discovered by Cuban officials.

His friend called an Atlanta-based contact sympathetic to Alcantara's
situation. On Friday, after the three had met for lunch at a diner,
Alcantara was driven to Georgia and given a place to stay and money for
clothes and other necessities. The next night at the contact's home, he
watched on TV as his former teammates lost to the United States, 6-1, in
a World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium.

"I felt very sad" watching the game, he said. "I felt I let the team
down, but it is a decision I had to make for my future. I want to be
free. It was my decision to make, to leave my family and my country, not
knowing when I could go back. But I needed to be free for myself, for my
life, to choose my future."

Midfielder Pedro Faife, 24, also went missing from the team hotel.
According to the Miami Herald, Faife left the team on Friday and
relatives met him in Washington and drove him to Orlando. Alcantara said
he didn't learn of his teammate's departure until reading a story online.

Alcantara plans to present himself to U.S. immigration officials in the
coming days, and he hopes to pursue a playing career. More than a dozen
Cuban soccer players have defected in the past six years, and while only
Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo is currently in MLS, several others
are playing in lower divisions. Alcantara was in contact with at least
three of those former Cuban players over the weekend.

He has made an estimated 36 appearances for the national team since 2005
and was a longtime member of his provincial club, Pinar del Rio, on the
western part of the island.

With no wife or children in Cuba, Alcantara said he had thought about
defecting before. He contemplated a move last year, when Cuba played in
the New York area, but the opportunity was not right and he felt close
to the national team. However, his playing time had diminished recently
and, he said, internal issues had soured his view of Coach Reinhold Fanz
and the program.

Alcantara described poor treatment of soccer players: bad food that was
rationed, terrible field conditions and a lack of equipment, cleats and
uniforms. Because there are technically no professional athletes in
Cuba, Alcantara said his occupation was officially maintenance worker at
a sports complex, a job he never performed.

Before departing Cuba late last week, he did not tell his parents of his
plans and never discussed it with his teammates because "no one on the
team trusts anyone," he said. At least one member of Cuba's traveling
delegation, he claimed, is a government spy.

After Thursday's training session in Washington, the team returned to
the hotel and the players reported to their rooms. The telephones had
been removed by Cuban officials, a standard practice to discourage
players from communicating with outsiders on foreign trips.

He showered, then sought out a team official for permission to lounge in
the lobby. Once there, he waited until he was out of view of the coaches
and "realized it was my only opportunity. I ran and ran and then told
the taxi driver to 'Drive me far away,' " he said. "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 okay."

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