October 15, 2008


Cuban soccer defector: Freedom worth the risk (MICHELLE KAUFMAN, 10/14/08, MiamiHerald.com)

He ran, and ran, and ran. Six to eight blocks. At full speed, looking over his shoulder the whole way, worried that someone would snag him and deliver him back to the Cuban delegation. Finally, when he realized nobody was chasing him, Alcantara stopped at a corner, caught his breath, and flagged down a taxi.

He speaks very little English, but he used what he knew when he got into the taxi cab. ''Drive me far,'' he told the driver, motioning with his hand. ``Go far, far, far.''

They drove for nearly half an hour and Alcantara, a 26-year-old forward, got off at a McDonald's. He asked the cabbie if he could borrow his cellphone to make a call. He called a friend in New Jersey, told him where he was, and the friend drove down to meet him.

On Friday morning, Alcantara met up with another friend, who took him shopping for food, clothing and toiletries, and drove home with him to Atlanta, where he will officially seek asylum and begin his new life. On Saturday night, he watched on television as Cuba lost 6-1 to the U.S. He felt bad for his teammates, but said he had no regrets. ''I love my team, but this is my life, and my future, and I had to do this,'' he said.

Alcantara had no idea that as he was getting over the most challenging day of his life, his teammate, Pedro Faife, was bolting from the team hotel back in D.C. with relatives, who drove him to their home in Orlando. The two hadn't spoken as of Monday morning, but Alcantara planned to get in touch later in the day.

''I feel so happy to finally be here, free to pursue my dreams,'' Alcantara said by cellphone Monday morning, on his way to Miami for a series of interviews with Spanish-language media. ``I've been dreaming of this for a long, long time, and I just had to wait for the right opportunity. It was a very scary decision, and I was nervous that first night, but thanks to the support of friends, and so many great people in this country, I am feeling much calmer.''

Alcantara comes from Pinar del Rio, and said his neighborhood was devastated by the recent hurricanes, making an already difficult life unbearable. He said his home suffered roof damage and other houses nearby were in ruins. The government made promises to help, but there didn't seem to be any help in sight. When he entered a grocery store Friday, his eyes welled with tears.

''It's beautiful to see the amount and quality of food here, the choices, the possibilities,'' he said. ``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.''

Alcantara stressed that he will always love Cuba, and has only warm feelings toward his teammates and coaches. But he felt ''trapped'' on the island, and had traveled enough through soccer to realize what life was like in other places. He was in East Rutherford, N.J., and Houston in 2007 for the Gold Cup, and the thought of defecting crossed his mind then, but he said family situations back home prevented him from doing so.

This time, nothing was holding him back. He is not married and has no children. His parents had no idea he planned to stay, and as of Monday he hadn't spoken to them yet. They don't have a telephone, so they're hard to reach, but also, Alcantara said he wanted to wait a few days to let the news sink in because he knows how hard it will hit them.

''I'm sure my parents are devastated with my decision, but in time, they'll realize this was the best thing,'' he said. ``There is no future for me in Cuba, no hope. 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.''

Lazy freeeloader, eh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 15, 2008 7:53 AM
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