From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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Cocoa butter, cologne and body spray fight through the humid air particles, making the already sticky night on the outskirts of Miami feel like a high school boys’ locker room. In the middle of a large complex of soccer fields, a group of men are pulling on their black and white soccer jerseys, bearing the team name Fortuna SC. Lightning flashes in the distance, but there is no sound of thunder — only the strains of a team’s banter, in Spanish.
Fortuna, made up almost exclusively of Cuban and Cuban-American men ranging from age 17 to the other side of 30, is playing a Friday-night recreational league game against Estudiantes Guayas, a team they beat a few weeks ago. This is not the best amateur league in town, but it’s the one that suits Fortuna. The stakes are not particularly high. No one is supposed to get paid to play. Instead, there’s an entry fee. At the end of the season, the winning team takes home a small check, which Fortuna hopes to use to pay for new jerseys and balls.
But as game time nears, it seems a competitive ball will never be kicked. Estudiantes doesn’t have a full team as the 8:30 start time rolls around. Referees are nowhere in sight. Fortuna’s own players are strolling in.
“Latinos,” says Fortuna’s coach Mario Lara. “They show up late.”
Lara, a short, 40-year-old Cuban-American with a heavy limp thanks to two separate Achilles surgeries, is a father figure to his team of young men. Most of them were among Cuba’s most promising soccer players. But, for a variety of reasons, they defected from the national team when the opportunity arose, and moved to Miami. They came in search of soccer, community, and Lara’s tutelage.
One such player is Frank Lopez, a forward, who sits on the bench with a snarl on his face. He looks tired, worn out after a long day of work. He flashes a quick smile every once in a while and slowly begins to put on his shin guards, socks, cleats and jersey. Lara knows when game time comes, Lopez will be ready.
Lopez, once one of Cuba’s most promising talents, has a small frame and a lightning-quick pace. During one game, in a youth Caribbean Cup match, he scored seven goals. But after years of toiling in the Cuban soccer system, he’d had enough.
“If you look at my blog, you’re going to see that I am against players defecting because I know the situation here and I know the things they’re going through,” Lara said.
On September 25, 2015, Lopez exited a plane in New York City with the rest of the Cuban team, which was trying to qualify for the Olympics in Rio. He picked up his bags and walked out of the airport with his teammate, Yendry Torres, leaving his team, his dreams of playing professionally and his country behind. Eventually, he and Torres made their way to Miami and found Lara. Now, the pair play on a team of compatriots, some of whom defected during the same tournament, in a recreational league on Friday nights. Instead of competing in stadiums packed with thousands, they play in front of friends and family in the bleachers.
Tonight, Lara is without two of his better players; they were shown red cards during the previous game and are now suspended. Lara could sneak them into the game under different names — other teams in the league do it. But like any good father, he has a lesson for the players to learn. They’re young and hot-headed and need to learn that their actions have consequences. They’re banished to the bleachers.
Finally, at nine o’clock, both teams and the referees are ready. But moments before the ball is kicked, Lara begins questioning the referee about a forward on the other team who his players say has played for other teams in the league. It’s not uncommon in recreational leagues with cash prizes for a team to rig the system in their favor. Lara pulls out his phone and is seconds from calling the commissioner of the league, until his players tell him to stop. They just want to play. So he lets them.
The night before the Fortuna game, I met Lara in his house in Kendall, a few miles from the fields. His home has the aura of the prototypical “American Dream,” with fake flowers and plain tidiness and mementos from his and his wife’s hometowns. Lara had just finished work and changed into track pants and an FC Barcelona t-shirt, his favorite team.
Lara has called the United States home for two decades. During that time he’s become the de-facto scholar on everything Cuban soccer thanks to a blog, Fútbol Cubano, that he started nearly six years ago with the help of friends. What started out as a place to vent his frustrations with the Cuban men’s national soccer team and the Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba has since become the most reliable outlet for stories about Cuban soccer.
Lara has developed a cache of reliable sources inside and outside of Cuba who hand him the kind of news the Cuban government does its best to cover up. He wrote a story about the national team being stranded in Aruba, with no money or food and little electricity, because the Cuban Soccer Association didn’t schedule a flight home after a game against Jamaica. He’s been keeping tabs on how a synthetic field donated more than four years ago by FIFA still hasn’t been completed. He’s followed the closing of the national soccer school due to sanitary concerns.
There’s plenty of good news on the blog as well: player profiles, match reviews and previews, and real passion for a team that Lara feels has been underachieving for years because of meddling by the Cuban government. Lara may live in the United States, but he believes in Cuban soccer and the national team. He’s critical, he said, not because he wants to stir the pot, but because he loves the team and wants it to reach the heights it’s capable of.
“If you look at my blog, you’re going to see that I am against players defecting because I know the situation here and I know the things they’re going through,” Lara said.
Lara grew up in Pinar del Rio, on the west coast of Cuba. His family began migrating from the island after Fidel Castro and the Communist party took control of the country. Lara’s grandparents moved to Miami in the 1960s and his father followed in the 1980s. Lara stayed on the island, growing up in the shadow of the Cold War, isolated from the rest of the world.
That seclusion didn’t apply to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, though. Lara remembers watching it and being enchanted by the Brazilian team that was knocked out of the tournament in the second round by Italy, the eventual champions. Where Italy stifled creativity and suffocated games, Brazil played with unmatched passion and flair.
After the ’82 World Cup, Lara became obsessed with soccer. He started rooting for his local team and absorbed the sport in any way he could. “They played in baseball stadiums and had between ten thousand and fifteen thousand people watch the games. In the eighties, we had pretty good teams, a pretty good tournament. It was amazing to watch,” Lara said.
At the same time, though, the game’s popularity became a nuisance for the Cuban government, which dismantled the country’s soccer program piece by piece.“They decided it had become a competition for baseball,” Lara said. Baseball is the country’s national pastime, and the sport that Castro played and loved the most. The country’s baseball team was a world power; it has won three gold and two silver medals since the sport was introduced to Olympic competition in 1992. Boxing and volleyball are next on the list. In those sports, the Cubans are perennial powerhouses at competitions like the Olympics and the Pan American Games; Cuba has won 73 medals in boxing — 37 of them gold — and five in volleyball at the Olympics. But with soccer, there was little chance of winning anything. Cuba’s only World Cup appearance came in 1938, when the team bowed out after an 8–0 loss to Sweden.
Lara claimed the Cuban government sees winning as the only option for its sports teams. Gold medals prove success; they justify the government staying in power. Losing, which Cuba does more often than not in soccer, doesn’t feed into the public-relations game the government plays.
“They teach you the important part is to participate, not win. That’s the most important thing. They teach you that, but they don’t practice it,” Lara said. “If they’re not going to win, they’re not going to send you [to a tournament]. That’s the reason they spend so much money on baseball, volleyball, boxing, stuff like that, because those are the sports they’re sure they’re going to win a medal in. The other sports, they won’t send a team, because when they get to the final medal count it’s: Cuba won this many golds, this many silvers, is very strong, that’s what the Revolution did, it helped you people.”
The government’s solution was simply to make soccer harder to access. By shifting the national tournament to a short schedule and pushing the teams out of the centralized baseball stadiums, the government effectively cut the sport off from its fans.
“My team started playing three hours from where I lived with really no transportation to go to the games. Basically, I stopped following them; I was unable to go watch the games,” Lara said. “To follow the team I had to use whatever they put in the news. The Cuban newspapers, they basically didn’t pass on much information.”
However, soccer’s popularity began to swell once again after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was broadcast across the country. European leagues have also helped by expanding their global television reach. The sport has the added benefit of being easy to pick up and play on the streets — something that has helped make it a titan worldwide.
Like it or not, Lara has become a vital cog in the defection process.
Lara studied to be a general doctor in Cuba, but by 1995, when the country was in the midst of economic turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he decided it was time to leave the island and join his father in Miami. When he arrived, his medical degree meant nothing. So, Lara packed his bags and headed to Colombia in 1996 to work at a hospital for four years. When he returned to the States in 2000, he worked any job he could, starting at Walgreens. But after the attack on September 11, 2001, he decided to give back to his adopted country and join the Navy.
“After 9/11, I felt I had to do something that made me feel like a human being,” Lara said. “In Cuba, you basically don’t have any rights — you have to be careful what you say. Here I found a place where I can say what I think, I can progress in my life and have freedoms that I always desired. It was something to do to give back to the country.”
Lara spent nearly 11 years in the service, even though he wasn’t a citizen until 2005. He would never have left the Navy if it weren’t for the injury to his Achilles tendon, which was compounded after a surgery to fix it.
Pick-up soccer in Havana. Soccer’s experiencing a long-awaited popularity boom in Cuba thanks largely to World Cups and European leagues being broadcast on the island. (Photo: Emiliano Granado)
The surgery did have one upside. While bedridden, Lara began blogging. His coverage of Cuban soccer was unprecedented and made him a sought-after internet persona. Players began friending him on Facebook; people in Cuba sent him photos and tips. Players began asking him for advice about their play on the field, sending him scoops from inside national team camps and telling him about how far the Cuban government had gone to gut the program.
After leaving the Navy, Lara became an X-ray technician in Miami. He works seven days a week to support his family. But when he’s not working or being a father to his children, Lara is watching or writing about soccer in the small office space he’s made in the corner of his bedroom, where he is surrounded by soccer memorabilia and record books. He keeps historical records of every World Cup team stacked and neatly organized on a bookcase next to his bed.
Fútbol Cubano’s place in the world of Cuban soccer remains massive. Whenever Lara goes quiet for a day or two, he gets messages and emails from worried friends and readers asking where he is. Most importantly, though, the blog has made him a vital cog in the defection process, whether he likes it or not.
When the Cuban national team flew to Canada to play a World Cup qualifying match in 2012, three players — Maikel Chang, Odisnel Cooper and Heviel Cordovés — left their team’s hotel in Toronto and crossed the border into the United States. They all knew they wanted to continue their careers, but they didn’t know how. So, they contacted Lara.
When Chang, Cooper and Cordovés arrived in Florida, Lara began reaching out to teams across the United States, informing them that the three players were available. Lara’s English is far from perfect, but he could construct the required emails far better than the three players, who spoke only Spanish. Lara and the players couldn’t afford to pay for travel or tryouts, so their options were limited. They had little footage of their play. Teams rarely responded to Lara’s request. Most still ignore him — except for Michael Anhaeuser.
Anhaeuser coaches the Charleston Battery and has experience with Cuban players. In 2008 he signed Lester Moré, Cuba’s all-time leading goal scorer, and a young midfielder by the name of Osvaldo Alonso. Moré and Alonso defected during the 2007 Gold Cup tournament in the United States.
Little was known about signing Cuban players at the time. Cubans are considered refugees when they cross the border and can get work permits almost immediately. But in terms of soccer, things are a little trickier.
In America’s professional soccer leagues, there are caps on the number of foreign players a team can have on its roster. At the time, the rules in Major League Soccer and their lower leagues were strict. Few teams wanted to risk wasting valuable roster spots by taking chances on unproven talent.
Cubans are considered refugees when they cross the border and can get work permits almost immediately. But in terms of soccer, things are a little trickier.
Anhaeuser worked with the US Soccer Federation to iron out the rules surrounding Cuban players, cementing a change in their status from international players to refugees. After successfully signing Moré, Anhaeuser got a shot at Alonso, who was also approached by the now-defunct MLS club Chivas USA. With the promise of more playing time, Anhaeuser nabbed Alonso, a raw but talented youngster.
“He wasn’t polished, like you would maybe see some guys technically, but he was very good, and you knew it right away,” Anhaeuser said.
The move paid off for all parties. Alonso anchored the Battery midfield for one season before signing with the Seattle Sounders, one year prior to their jump to MLS. He now makes more than $900,000 a year and is living out the dream of so many defectors. But Alonso doesn’t reminisce about his journey to the top of American soccer. He has never given an interview about his personal story. Like it or not, though, his story has become the model for any defector looking to jump-start a career after leaving Cuba.
Nearly five years after Alonso made the trip to Charleston, Lara convinced Anhaeuser to bring Chang, Cooper and Cordovés up for a trial ahead of the 2013 season. The three players made the team and have been with the club ever since. Lara didn’t receive any money for getting the three players a trial and eventual contract. He’s only been paid once for helping out a player, Jorge Luis Corrales, who signed with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on July 14, 2016.
“I don’t know why other teams don’t [sign Cuban players],” Anhaeuser said. “Maybe they have players in the positions already. They might look at them and say, ‘I can get an English international over a Cuban international.’ Maybe that is a stigma. I don’t know.
“I just gave them a chance,” Anhaeuser said.
Brian Rosales is built like a professional soccer player. He has legs that can go for days and round, thick thighs that allow him to turn quickly and power across the field. It’s easy to see why the Cuban national team was worried he might defect last year. (Rosales was on the same team as Lopez and Torres.) His coaches’ fears were well informed. After a meeting in his hotel room in Kansas City where his coaches confronted him about a potential defection, he packed his bags and walked to the front of the hotel. No one was watching the door, so Rosales ran to a waiting SUV and hopped in. The family of another player who defected was waiting in the car. Rosales drove straight to Miami.
When he arrived, Rosales sought out Lara. The two had begun talking over Facebook when Rosales became a regular on the Cuban national youth team. When Rosales arrived in Miami, he knew he had someone who would look out for him, in addition to the already strong Cuban community.
Rosales, 21, started working in construction when he got to South Florida. He also joined Fortuna. He’s had a few tryouts with professional teams, mostly large, open-invite tryouts, where it’s nearly impossible to make an impression. Lara’s trying to find him a team. In the meantime, though, Rosales plays on Friday nights.
The question looms large. Why? Why do these players leave behind their families and their teams? Why do they give it all up? And then, why do they play for Fortuna? There have to be better teams and better leagues in Miami. There has to be an easier way, a more direct route for living out their dreams of playing professionally.
“The first reason is to stay in shape,” Rosales said. “The second reason is to say ‘thank you’ to [Lara] for the stuff he does. And third is about being seen by other teams to play professionally.”
As for why he left the Cuban team for the unknown in America: “I saw a better future. I have the dream that all soccer players have: to be a professional.”
As lightning flashes in the distance, Fortuna and Estudiantes play a wild game of back-and-forth. This is rec-league soccer at its best: a mix of good play, ball retention and creativity juxtaposed against poor touches and passes, rough tackles and a lack of defensive positioning.
Fortuna falls behind in the first half, but regains its footing and takes the lead in the second half. Then, late in the second half, Estudiantes mount a comeback and score two quick goals to go ahead, 3–2. The game devolves into a sloppy mess of bad passes and tired legs. Lara stands on the sideline, his cell phone in his hand as he tries to keep track of the time. He only has one substitute player, but he’s not here to coach in the traditional sense. He does not shout or change their plan. Fortuna loses 3–2.
When he was asked to become the coach of Fortuna in 2014, Lara was wary. He’d never coached in his life. But the young players weren’t in need of a coach so much as a dad. They didn’t need strategy, they needed someone who understood leaving home, friends and family behind. The soccer insight came second. What mattered was that Lara cared.
When the final whistle blows, a heated exchange between a player on the other team and Fortuna midfielder Brian Fuentes begins a shoving match. As Fuentes walks away from the mix-up, Lara stands with his arms crossed, disappointment spread across his face. Eventually, he walks over to help separate the two teams. He wraps his short arms around a group of his players and walks them back to the bench. As the players silently remove their cleats and jerseys, he stands back and watches quietly.
Most of his Fortuna players will bounce around rec leagues in Miami. Their dreams of playing professionally either never had a chance or drifted away once they left Cuba. What they’re fighting for now is a new life. Blood relatives are an island away; the Cuban community in Miami is their family now.
Lara will be there for them, just like he is there for the players who still have a chance to play professionally. One gets the sense that he’ll be here, under the bright lights with his team on Friday nights, for as long as he is able.