Tuesday September 2nd, 2008

Maykel Galindo won't be here on Saturday for Cuba's historic World Cup qualifier against the United States. The former star forward of the Cuban national team defected to the U.S. in 2005, boarding a bus in Seattle during the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Cuban officials now view Galindo as a shamed figure whose example has spurred nine other defections by Cuban soccer players to the U.S. since 2005. Meanwhile, Cuban exiles see Galindo as a beacon of hope who now earns $79,750 a year playing professionally in the States.

But understand this: Galindo, who now plays for MLS's Chivas USA, has no confusion over his cheering interest on Saturday. "I'm rooting for Cuba," he says. "I'm Cuban, I played for the national team for a long time and I hope Cuba can advance in World Cup qualifying."

Galindo has received several interview requests this week, not surprising given the interest in the U.S.'s first-ever World Cup qualifier against Cuba. Due to the volume of requests and translation issues, Chivas USA took questions for Galindo, translated his responses and provided an interview transcript for reporters.

It's not ideal, of course -- I much prefer to conduct my own interviews -- but Galindo's responses are compelling enough that they deserve to be heard.

Galindo still uses the word "we" to describe the Cuban national team, and he says he'll be watching with heavy anticipation when the U.S.-Cuba game is broadcast (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavisión).

"I feel very happy to see many of the players that I played with for many years because I'll be watching them in the preliminary round of World Cup qualifiers," Galindo says. "I'll get to watch the stadium where I played for many years. It's been years since I've seen that stadium. I haven't seen the full national team play since they played the Gold Cup here [in 2007] and I'd like to see how they've progressed and the excitement of their playing against the U.S."

But Galindo's memories will also be bittersweet, not least because he knows firsthand that economic pressures often make life difficult for Cuban soccer players.

For starters, he says, players aren't paid for playing in the amateur Cuban professional league. National team players do earn some money, Galindo adds, but often not enough to make playing soccer worthwhile as a profession. Still, playing internationally for Cuba gave Galindo a window into a world outside of his home country that he says he wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

"You can leave Cuba and represent Cuba in an international competition, so those are the benefits," he says. "On the contrary, sometimes there are no benefits and you're worse off in Havana with the national team than being at home and working a regular job. At home you're well-fed. Your mom makes you a good meal. When you're with the national team they could tell you [to] go home for the weekend, but you wouldn't have a ride back so you had to hitch a ride and then get home late."

Crowd support is different at Cuban soccer games too. While Galindo says "the atmosphere is great" at national team games, with fans making noise and calling out to their favorite players, he adds that if you look closely the Cuban fans won't be wearing their national team jersey because they can't afford to buy one.

Then again, Galindo points out, jerseys are hard to come by even if you're a player on the national team.

"When a player scores a goal and the game ends he really can't give his shirt to the fans because it's the only one he's got," he says. "You pretty much play the whole year with the same jersey. If someone wants to exchange jerseys, like in the Gold Cup, you can't because otherwise you won't have anything to wear for the next match."

To hear Galindo, his reasons for defecting were more economic than political, more about gaining the chance to earn a professional living that he couldn't in the amateur Cuban league.

And while he says he feels no guilt for leaving Cuba for the U.S., he's fully aware that Cuban officials think his success has spurred the Cuban soccer defections that have taken place in recent years.

"Many people in Cuban soccer think it's been my fault that Cuban players have left the team," Galindo says. "It's understandable. Many of these people watched me play when I was in Cuba and now they see me on TeleFutura or ESPN. Those people say to themselves, 'Look at Maykel, he's doing a good job in Major League Soccer.'"

"But if I was in Cuba and I saw a fellow Cuban having that same success I would also want to taste that, to be on television and accomplish what he is doing. I decided to stay in the U.S. because I want to achieve my dreams. I know some people think that I have told players to leave the team but that is simply untrue. If they stayed here, it was because they decided to stay."

Cuban soccer has improved in recent years, as shown by Cuba's 1-1 tie against the U.S. in Olympic qualifying and the Cuban team's advancement to the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. But soccer is still less popular in Cuba than baseball, boxing and even volleyball.

It's not likely that Cuba will make it to the final round of World Cup qualifying: the Cubans began this round by losing 3-1 at home to Trinidad & Tobago. Still, Galindo says, "I think Cuban soccer has a future. With each passing year, Cuban soccer improves. Before, teams who would score seven goals against us are now being challenged as they try to at least keep a tie against us. New players coming into the national team are showing their talent and potential."

The question is how long those young players will want to stay in Cuba if they know that, like Galindo, they can make a more lucrative living on the outside. When Cuba visits the U.S. for a World Cup qualifier on Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C., it will be interesting to see if the entire Cuban team returns to Havana.

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