Two Cuban players defect, seek asylum

Updated: January 25, 2012, 5:19 PM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

Two members of the Cuban women's national soccer team have defected to the United States and are asking for political asylum.

The players, Yisel Rodriguez and Yezenia Gallardo, disappeared Monday while the team was participating in Vancouver in the CONCACAF women's soccer Olympic qualifying tournament.

Rodriguez, 22, is now with relatives in Miami, while Gallardo, 20, has been reunited with family in Houston.

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.

Cuba lost all three games at the tournament and failed to qualify for the London Olympics.

Speaking by telephone from Miami, with her brother, Raudel Rodriguez, acting as interpreter, Yisel detailed how she and Gallardo escaped the attention of the Cuban delegation.

You can't imagine what it was like. She was 6 when I left Cuba. We were both hugging and crying. It's unexplainable, really.

-- Raudel Rodriguez, brother of defector Yisel Rodriguez

Rodriguez said she told no one back home about her plans, but did discuss the possibility with Gallardo after arriving in Vancouver.

The problem was that except for games and practices, players were not allowed outside the hotel, and inside they were permitted to go only to the third floor for meals.

But following Cuba's match with Canada Saturday evening, the two players made their move.

"We waited for a distraction of the coaches," Rodriguez said. "Then I talked to my roommate (Gallardo), and we decided to go. We tried to take the elevator down to the first floor, but it would only go down to the fifth floor, so we took the stairs down to the street. We hailed a cab and asked him to take us to the border."

The two reached the U.S. border at about 2 a.m. Sunday. Once they arrived, Rodriguez and Gallardo approached a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official.

"He asked us what we were doing," Rodriguez said. "We told him we wanted to defect."

The players' passports were in the possession of the Cuban delegation, but Rodriguez said she was able to prove who she was by showing the official her Cuban identity card. She had kept the card hidden in her shoe to avoid detection by the Cuban delegation.

When the players disappeared, Raudel Rodriguez was alerted by a phone call from Cuba. He called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Washington, D.C., to indicate that he would take responsibility for his sister.

She boarded a flight from Seattle on Sunday night and arrived in Miami at about 9:30 a.m. Monday.

It was the first time the siblings had seen each other in 16 years.

"You can't imagine what it was like," Raudel Rodriguez said. "She was 6 when I left Cuba. We were both hugging and crying. It's unexplainable, really."

Yisel Rodriguez indicated that her primary motivation for defecting was to advance her soccer career.

"My goal is to keep going with soccer and someday go to the Olympics as a U.S. player," she said.

Cuban soccer players have a long history of defecting to the United States while playing in international tournaments. Maykel Galindo defected while playing for Cuba in the 2005 Gold Cup, and seven members of the Cuban U-23 team defected in March 2008.

The most recent defection, prior to Rodriguez and Gallardo, was Yosniel Mesa, who defected in June 2011 during the Gold Cup.

Rodriguez's decision comes at a cost, however. She said she left both parents, and her husband, Nestor Castro Dongora, back in Cuba.

"It's very hard," she said about leaving her family. "But I know it's going to be worth it because this country has a lot of opportunities."

Jeff Carlisle covers soccer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.

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