Walmart, of all places, the embodiment of Americana and commercialism, is where Cuban soccer player Osvaldo Alonso found freedom five and a half years ago. He will never forget that terrifying, lonely afternoon, and says it has driven him to become the three-time Most Valuable Player of the Seattle Sounders.
Alonso was the captain of the Under-23 Cuban national team. From the moment he heard the team was traveling to the United States in June 2007 to play in the Gold Cup tournament, he began dreaming of defecting. His lifelong ambition was to be a professional soccer player, and he knew he would not get that opportunity as long as he stayed on the island. Also pulling him was his girlfriend, and now his wife, Liang Perez, who had left for Miami in 2004.
While in Houston preparing for the game against Honduras, the Cuban team went on a shopping spree at the local Walmart. Alonso stuffed a zip-up jacket and $700 in his backpack. He had been saving up the money in anticipation of his getaway. When his teammates and coaches were distracted in the electronics and clothing departments, Alonso, then 21, distanced from them and walked out the door. Looking over his shoulder, he walked briskly for 10 to 12 blocks, not knowing where he was going or what his future had in store.
“I was very, very scared they were going to catch me,” said Alonso, who was in Miami last week to promote the upcoming Major League Soccer season, which begins in March. “But I just kept going. This was my one chance at freedom, and once I decided to do it, I wasn’t going to change my mind.”
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He had no immediate plan. He had no phone. He didn’t speak English. Once he was far away from the store, he approached a Hispanic-looking man and asked if he spoke Spanish. Turns out the man was Mexican. Alonso asked if he could borrow his phone to make a call to Miami. He called his friend to tell him he had deserted the team. The friend told him to get on a bus to Miami.
Alonso gave the Mexican man $100 for the ticket, and the man arranged the ticket for him. Alonso then rode the bus in silence for a day and a half, breaking down more than a few times.
“I kept thinking about my family back in Cuba, and how sad they would be, especially my mother,” Alonso said. “Nobody had any idea I was planning this, not even my parents. I knew she would worry, and I also realized on that busride that it would be a long time before I could see my family again.”
Once in Miami, he called his family in Pinar del Rio to tell them the news.
“My mother sobbed,” he said. “My sister sobbed. My father was also very sad. It was a tough conversation. I explained to them that I had to do this to have a better life, and that one day, hopefully, I could bring them over, too. I told them I couldn’t look back, that I had to look forward.”
His friends helped him get his documents in order, and he got a tryout with the Charleston Battery of the second-division USL. Alonso, a defensive midfielder, made the team and was named MVP his first season. His ability to stop the opponents’ attack and regain possession for his team caught the attention of the Seattle Sounders coaches. When that team joined MLS in 2009, it signed Alonso. His second year there, he won the team’s MVP award, and went on to win again in 2011 and 2012.
He is considered the league’s top defensive midfielder, and last season was named to the MLS Best XI, the league’s All-Star team. He has done training stints with West Ham and Everton in the English Premier League, opportunities he says he couldn’t have had if he had stayed in Cuba.
The Mexican man who helped him that fateful day stayed in touch with Alonso, and called him when he read in the newspaper of the player’s MLS success.
“Never in my life did I think I would one day be playing in the United States in front of 40,000 fans applauding and chanting my name,” he said. “Never did I think I could train in England. Even though it was very painful to leave my Cuban life behind, my dream is coming true here.”
Alonso is 26 now, and became a U.S. citizen last June. He and Perez have a young son, Dennis. His goal now is to play for the U.S. national team. His representatives have contacted the U.S. Soccer Federation to see if that could happen. Because he played 17 matches for the Cuban national team, he is ineligible by FIFA rules to represent another country. But he argues that he was a victim of political persecution, and that is why he fled the country and is no longer allowed to play for that national team.
“The day I became a U.S. citizen, I was jumping up and down with happiness,” he said. “I felt like all my doors were finally open, that anything is possible. I will always love Cuba, and I was proud to represent my country, but this is my home now and if I ever get to wear the USA jersey, it will be a very emotional day.”