Miami FC opens its inaugural season on Saturday, April 2, at Lockhart Stadium against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a regional rivalry in the making.
Of all the players making their Miami FC debut, none had a more emotional journey than Ariel Martinez. The 29-year-old midfielder defected from the Cuban national team last July while playing in the Gold Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Cuba had just defeated Guatemala to advance to the quarterfinals, and on the bus ride back to the team hotel, Martinez became overcome with emotion. He had already decided he was going to defect during the trip, and figured that was a good night to do it. But when the reality hit him, he could barely contain his tears.
Martinez spent 11 years on the Cuban national team and scored 34 goals in 58 starts. He had tremendous pride in his team and loved his teammates like brothers. Meanwhile, back home, he’d be leaving his mother and his three older brothers.
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“A few of my teammates had a hunch I was going to leave. They got very sad, and I was even sadder, knowing I may never see them again,” Martinez said. “I also thought about my family and wondered when I would see them again. It was a very scary time for me, but it is something I felt I needed to do.”
Martinez was one of four players who defected from that team during the Gold Cup.
He hugged coach Raul Gonzalez Triana as he got off the bus. As the rest of the team headed to their rooms, Martinez called for a taxi. When the taxi driver asked him his destination, Martinez replied: Miami.
The driver, a Uruguayan, agreed to take him.
“It was very expensive to take a taxi that far, but I had no other transportation,” he said. “I wanted to be far away from the team and get to Miami as soon as I could. The drive was around nine hours, and millions of thoughts go through your head — the decision you made, the insecurity. Once I got in that taxi, there was no turning back. It was time to look forward and, as scared as I was, I just prayed and thought, ‘May God guide me and help me in the future.’ ”
When he arrived in Miami, at the home of a friend, he gave the taxi driver all the cash he had wadded up in his pocket.
Hard as it was to start anew, Martinez said there was no other way to pursue his career goals.
“I wanted to play professional soccer, and I couldn’t do that in Cuba,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time, and decided this was my only option. Before I left Cuba, I told my brothers so they could prepare my mom because it was a huge hit for her, but at the end she understood and here I am. They told me not to worry, that they’d take care of her, that I should pursue my career.”
He wound up signing a contract with the Charleston Battery of the USL, a team that included a handful of other Cuban players who had defected. Last weekend, he joined Miami FC. Although it is not truly home for him, it’s as close as it gets.
“Being in Miami is like being home,” he said. “It seems like there are Cubans everywhere. You call an Uber, the driver is Cuban. You go to a cafeteria, the owner is Cuban. You go to a dance club, and seven or eight of the songs are Cuban. I feel very comfortable and happy here. Miami is exactly as I imagined — palm trees, Latin people, a party city.”
He speaks to his mother twice a week, and she said she is proud of him.
Martinez said the players on Miami FC have spent the past few months getting to know each other and gelling on the field under the direction of coach Alessandro Nesta, the former Italian World Cup star.
“It’s a challenge because we’re all new, from different places, different languages, but we’re coming along,” Martinez said.
One teammate he does know is defender Jorge Luis Corrales, 24, a former teammate and roommate from the Cuban national team. Corrales defected while on a tourist visa visiting family last year.
“He’s like my son, like a younger brother, and I’m very happy that we are together again,” Martinez said. “We had confided in each other about our dreams of playing in the United States, but didn’t figure we’d wind up on the same team. It’s quite a story.”
▪ The U.S. men’s national team will be training in Miami on Monday through Thursday to prepare for a pair of upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala. They play Friday in Guatemala City (9 p.m., BeINSport) and four days later in Columbus, Ohio (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Miami practices are closed to the public.
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On the tube
Sunday: Newcastle vs. Sunderland (9:30 a.m., NBCSN), Manchester United vs. Manchester City (noon, NBC), D.C. vs. Colorado (5 p.m., ESPN2), K.C. vs. Toronto (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1).