Two Cuban Soccer Players Vanish in New Jersey

Two players on Cuba's national soccer team did not show up for a tournament in Houston and team officials worried the two had defected a day after seven Haitian soccer players went missing in New York City.

The Cubans lost in Houston Wednesday night in the first round of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament and were eliminated. After the 5-0 loss to Honduras, Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez declined to say whether Osvaldo Alonso and Lester More defected.

More apparently went missing at a previous stop in East Rutherford, New Jersey; Alonso did not return from a group shopping trip before the game in Houston.

"I'm a football man, not a politician. I will not answer that question," Gonzalez told reporters.

The incident occurred a day after 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.

In the case of the Cubans, the possible defections would not be the first time Cuban athletes have taken such a step while competing abroad. Cuba is a powerhouse in international baseball and at least 20 players have defected since 1991. Some have had great success in the major leagues.

No one answered at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., and a call to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which would handle defections, was not immediately returned.

Under the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cuban defectors are generally allowed to remain in the United States, as long as they reach U.S. soil.

Zac Emmons, Gold Cup spokesman, said the team planned to fly back to Cuba on Thursday morning. Gonzalez and Alonso had checked out of their hotel on Thursday morning.

CONCACAF, the governing body of soccer, issued a statement before the game saying it would not comment on rumors of a Cuban defection.