Cuban soccer player, family pay big price for defection

For the last month or so, in the field of yellowed grass next to Eagle River Elementary School, a young man appears in the afternoons, toeing a soccer ball, doing solitary jumping-jacks and taking shots on the empty goal. His name is Yeniel Bermudez. He is 25. Few people know him in Alaska, but not long ago, his image was a symbol of national pride thousands of miles away -- in Cuba.

Now he couldn't be further from that.

In 2008, Bermudez was the captain of Cuba's under-23 national soccer team. Cuba is a communist country that doesn't allow citizens to travel to the United States, but Bermudez's team was allowed special permission to visit the U.S. for an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, Fla. Cubans who reach U.S. soil can be granted permanent residency. For a year before the match, Bermudez said he considered the idea of defecting. His head filled with stories of professional athletes in Cuba, including a good number of baseball players, who had gone to the U.S. and become successful. His salary in Cuba was $10 a month. In the U.S. he could make money to improve life for his family back home. But leaving would mean never seeing them again.

Late on an evening in March of that year, Bermudez sneaked out the side door of a Doubletree Hotel with four teammates. As he rode away from the hotel, Bermudez felt reborn, he said. The sight of the city, the huge stores with their parking lots full of newer cars, amazed him. Media swarmed in to tell the story of him and his teammates. Offers of help poured in from the Cuban community. It seemed he was destined to fulfill his dreams.

But, in the end, it was harder than he imagined.

Fast-forward two years. Bermudez finds himself here in Alaska with his fiancee, Stephanie Magestro. She is a middle school guidance counselor. They met two years ago at a bar while she was on vacation in Los Angeles, and began their courtship on MySpace. Last month he finished playing a season with the Charleston Battery, a lower division team in South Carolina, where he felt like an outsider. He has no soccer contract.

His search for a job in Anchorage hasn't yielded anything permanent. He passed on a part-time job at Costco in favor of a night job at a housing facility for sex offenders. But he was fired when his boss discovered he can't write in English. He now spends several hours a day training. He plays in a men's indoor soccer league. He volunteers at Magestro's daughters' schools.

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