When Cuba’s national women’s team showed up for Monday night’s CONCACAF Olympic qualifying match against Haiti in Vancouver, BC two players were conspicuously missing.
Unconfirmed reports say star forward Yesenia Gallardo Martinez, 20, and midfielder Yisel Rodriguez Llanes, 22, have defected from the Caribbean nation while playing Olympic qualifying matches in Canada. Gallardo is one of Cuba’s top players, playing in every minute of the team’s first two games at the tournament. Rodriquez also started both games.
The pair was last seen Saturday night. When Cuba faced Haiti in their final group game Monday, Gallardo and Rodriques were marked absent on the lineup sheet. Rogers Sportsnet, the official broadcaster of the event, reported that it presumed the two players had defected.
“Per policy, we can confirm that we’ve heard the same reports regarding the missing Cuban players,” CONCACAF spokesman Ben Spencer said in an email. “However it is now a matter for the Canadian authorities and the Cuban Delegation and we are not commenting further.”
Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau said that the government is unable to comment on the status of any person in Canada due to privacy legislation.
After Cuba lost 3-0 to Haiti at BC Place on Monday, head of the Cuban soccer delegation Jesus Pereira, coaches and players headed directly to the team bus, declining questions through a Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) spokesman.
Defection, especially from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, is a complicated move. For those fleeing from oppression, gaining freedom can be dangerous and there are significant costs – both financially and emotionally. Most Cuban defectors come by sea, often in makeshift inner tube rafts. An average of 2,000 Cubans are met by the U.S. Coast Guard each year and brought ashore. Athletes and musicians are among the few allowed to travel internationally.
It wouldn’t be the first time Cuban soccer players sought asylum during a tournament in North America. In 2008, a total of nine Cuban players left the touring men’s teams in two separate incidents in Tampa and Washington. Seven members of the Cuban Men’s Under-23 team defected to Florida during a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. During the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, striker Yosniel Mesa left his team to defect while playing in Charlotte, N.C.
Cuba lost all three of its games in Vancouver, dropping a 2-0 result to Costa Rica Thursday and falling 2-0 to Canada Saturday. It marks the first time the Cuban women’s team has advanced to the final round of Olympic qualifying but with record, they failed to qualify for the London Olympics.
In other CONCACAF qualifying news, the U.S. women’s national team routed the Domincan Republic (14-0) and Guatemala (13-0) in the first two games with Sydney Leroux scoring five goals off the bench in the second half of the Guatemala game. The WNT takes on Mexico tonight at 10:3o ET/7:30 PT. Semi final matches will take place January 27th.
If Gallardo and Rodriquez did defect, where will we see them next? The WPS perhaps?