Cuba Si, Seppy No

You may recall back in 2008 when Cuba was scheduled for three CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers in Tampa Florida and seven players, having finished their breakfast at the team hotel, proceeded to walk out a back door, hop into a van driven by the uncle of one of the players and disappear into the lovely Florida morning.

It was one of the least dramatic Dashes to Freedom on record: waiting until you've polished off the buffet table bacon and eggs and then strolling out the door and hopping into a Plymouth Voyager with a Sea World Orlando bumper sticker isn't much like cutting through concertina wire at midnight while dodging guard dogs and anti-personnel mines in a hail of machine gun fire, but in it's own way it was even more instructive.

In the old days, repressive regimes would send hordes of large, unsmiling men with suspicious bulges under their arms to keep an eye on athletes traveling in countries which, due to an odd addiction to human freedom, were unlikely to hand back anyone who managed to slip away from the minders.

But by the dawn of the 21st Century, Cuba just wasn't sending the goon squad any more. It may have to do with the fact that while CONCACAF foots the bill for players and coaches, they aren't willing to pick up the tab for a couple dozen thugs and Cuba simply doesn't have the cash to do it themselves.

So it was surprisingly easy for these guys to simply slip away and, a few days later, find themselves working out with the LA Galaxy, Miami FC and other outfits who are always on the lookout for guys who are willing to play for modest pay.

At the time, a number of utterly bone-headed commenters opined that it was somehow CONCACAF's fault for not providing sufficient security, an appalling attitude which was best summed up by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinal's Jeff Rusnak, who wrote possibly the stupidest article of the year:

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of U.S.-Cuban relations knows that the first rule of scheduling anything to do with Cuba in this country is to place the visitors as far away from Miami as possible...

Had CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in the region, simply placed Cuba in Carson and put Haiti in Tampa, it might have saved itself from looking as though it's clueless about the geopolitical realities in Florida. It might also have boosted those paltry crowds that attended games at Raymond James.

I wrote about this incredible pile of garbage at the time - can't find a link right now - and reprised it in a letter to the editor which the Sun-Sentinal actually published, saying in part:

"Hey, good thought: why not just hold the games in Nome or Bangor? Make those little rascals think twice about wanting to be free, eh?

"Better yet, maybe CONCACAF could just provide some heavily armed paramilitaries to keep an eye on those pesky Cubans. That way, the lovely little tournament won't be marred by some guys who get stupid ideas about personal liberty...

"As Americans, we - or at least most of us - believe that "liberty" is the "inalienable right" of ALL men, whether Raul Castro agrees or not...

"Your column is ridiculous, poorly thought through and inane. You ought to be ashamed."

My moral high dudgeon even received notice from something called The Review of Cuban American Blogs, which honored me with a "Righteous American" award for riding Rusnak around the barn a few times.

No, seriously.

All of which came to mind last week when we learned that three (variously reported as two and then four, but three seems to be right) Cuban soccer players, in Toronto to play Canada in a WC Quallie, took a powder.

We can ask Calixte to verify it, but apparently since Cuba has already been eliminated they sent what amounts to a "B" or even a "C" team to Toronto, so it's not like there are currently a crowd of soccer agents and scouts fanning out across the continent eager to sign them all up.

The US Customs & Border Service admits that they showed up at the Niagara Falls crossing over the weekend - where they were possibly the first people in history not to bitch about how ridiculous the lines are at Peace Bridge - but they are refusing to say what happened next or whether they were allowed to cross.

Canada has said that they will not apprehend or detain the three men, but they will undoubtedly end up here in the US eventually due to our "wet foot, dry foot" exception for Cuban nationals which says that if you're apprehended on the water you have to go back but otherwise you're eligible for residency immediately.

(Personally, I wish they'd try and cross Lake Ontario in a boat, just to see a Rochester NY judge have to try and make sense of US Immigration policy - nothing in the law specifies "salt water", right? - but that's just me.)

So if anyone sees Jeff Rusnak, tell him for me that not only moving Cuba games to Los Angeles, as he proposed, not going to work, moving them all the way to Toronto doesn't do it either. As in the case of the two female Cuban players last January in Vancouver, you're going to have to play these games on the Moon to keep some of the players from going over the wall.

Just the way it is, and complaining about how it wrecks the quality of the match when, as in Toronto, the result is that Cuba has to play short handed isn't likely to generate much sympathy.

All of which brings us to FIFA's Grand Poobah Sepp Blatter.

Uncle Seppy is scheduled to begin a Caribbean tour in a few days, and one of the featured items on his schedule was supposed to be a stop in Havana to lay the cornerstone on a new, artificial turf stadium which, we will note in passing, FIFA is paying for.

But last Wednesday - the day before the players jumped ship - FIFA sent a letter to the Cuban Federation cancelling the visit due to "sports politics related to the organization of the 2014 World Cup games in Brazil".

No one is entirely sure what that means, exactly - the only way Cuba is going to Brazil 2014 is if they buy tickets - but a good deal of the third world's sporting press is saying that "the American lobby at FIFA" has decided to "embargo" Cuba in sports because of Cuba's support for the current Syrian regime.

This rather ludicrous explanation - the idea of an "American lobby" at FIFA is almost as absurd as the notion that the USSF wants to punish Cuba for supporting Bashir Assad - is good for laughs, but not much beyond that.

But then, at a media conference yesterday in Switzerland, Blatter upped the ante by announcing that he's very upset about the Cuban players hitting the bricks in Toronto rather than showing up against the Canadian team, telling reporters that he has "recived the reports" from Canada, that it is "a serious matter" and that:

"It's not only a question for the [Fifa] competitions' department but it is a presidential question that I will address personally to the sports authorities in Cuba, by giving them a copy to give to their political authorities,"

Now aside from the fact that I doubt seriously whether Raul Castro gives a damn what Sepp Blatter has to say about much of anything, and also leaving aside the fact that FIFA steadfastly maintains they care nothing about politics but is nevertheless sending missives off to Cuba's "political authorities", there's one simple question:

Apart from changing their form of government and/or lifting the country out of grinding poverty and political oppression, it would appear that the only thing Cuba can do to stop these regular mass defections at football events is to bulk up their security presence.

Apparently Sepp agrees with my old friend Jeff: hire a few dozen heavies to keep tabs on your players so that the visuals at FIFA's lovely tournaments won't be marred by the ugly spectacle of a bunch of guys selfishly choosing personal freedom over making Sepp Blatter look good.

Our sport is in the very best of hands.