PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Most of Haiti's under-17 national soccer team apparently deserted the squad during an airport stopover hours before a planned Wednesday trip to South Korea to prepare for the upcoming U17 World Cup.
By Wednesday afternoon, six of the 13 missing players had returned to the airport and turned themselves in to team officials, said Felix Augustin, the Haitian consul in New York. It was unclear where the youngsters had been and why they had left the team, he said.
"All I know is that six of them have been retrieved and we're still looking for the others," he said by telephone.
Most of the team's 18 players, all under age 17, had gone missing from John F. Kennedy International Airport between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Augustin said.
Earlier, Augustin had said that officials were making calls to members of the Haitian community to try to get the children back.
The players arrived from Haiti on Tuesday and were scheduled to leave early Wednesday for Seoul, South Korea, to play in a friendly tournament ahead of the U17 World Cup in August.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said it was aware of the situation and had assigned police officers to investigate. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, Shaila B. Manyam, said embassy officials were looking into the matter.
Augustin said authorities believed adults may be involved in the players' desertion and warned they could face criminal charges unless they turn over the minors.
"It seems that some adults may have been involved. If so, they are going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said Augustin, who declined to give further details.
Speaking to a Haitian Creole-language radio station in New York, the president of the Haitian Football Federation, Yves Jean-Bart, warned the youngsters that they were hurting their futures and threatened to involve U.S. authorities "unless these players reinstate themselves as soon as possible."
Jean-Bart gave no indication why the players would abandon the team. But Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and thousands of Haitians leave the country each year to escape miserable living conditions, violence and political instability.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Lucille Cirillo, said the agency would help investigators in any way possible. But, she said, immigration officials would not typically become involved in such cases until the expiration of the players' tourist visas, which could take up to six months.
The apparent desertions dealt a major blow to Haitian soccer, which has been experiencing a resurgence of late after years of dismal performances. The U17s qualified for the biennial World Cup for the first time in the Caribbean nation's history earlier this year, while the men's team won the Caribbean Cup for the first time in January.