The Cuban Connection

Signing an aging soccer star didn't do the trick. Maybe two stars from Cuba will finally draw some fans to Miami FC bleachers.

Niurka Marco is a middle-aged, Havana-born telenovela star and erotic model who is the scourge of the tabloids in her resident Mexico. She's the Cuban Anna Nicole Smith. The buxom woman with curly, tomato-colored hair could travel anonymously in any American city but Miami — which must be why she vacations in South Florida.

Heads turn when she and her entourage take seats in the backroom of Versailles Restaurant. "¡¿Fotos?!" the starlet exclaims when she realizes she has been made.

Within a minute, the backroom devolves into pandemonium as camera phones emerge from every pocket.

The Miami FC can run and, apparently, hide.
C. Stiles
The Miami FC can run and, apparently, hide.

The crowd ignores two lean, baldheaded men — Pedro Faife and Reinier Alcántara — seated nearby. So a lanky fellow accompanying them stands and points at the pair, decked out in sleek designer clothing. "What about these guys?" he demands of nobody in particular. "Don't you know who these guys are? They're the Miami FC defectors!"

Ignacio Rodriguez's plea is only partly in jest. He's the public-relations manager for Miami Football Club Blues pro soccer team, which is kind of like being a detective on the graffiti squad in Singapore. Cuba escapees Faife and Alcántara are the newest arrivals to the unwillingly incognito soccer team that splits home games between Miami's FIU Stadium and Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

Chronic anonymity is a disease that has felled eight South Florida franchises in the past three decades. The Miami Gatos went belly-up in 1972, and the Toros followed suit four years later. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers lasted six years before being relocated to Minnesota in 1983. And Major League Soccer gave the 4-year-old Miami Fusion the Kevorkian treatment in 2002.

Investors haven't completely surrendered. In late 2008, it seemed Barcelona FC — one of the world's premier soccer clubs — and a deep-pocketed Bolivian cell phone mogul would partner to bring another MLS team to Miami. By this past March, the proposal was scrapped amid concerns that the local soccer market was untenable. "We are seeing more fan support and promise from other cities — Portland, Vancouver, Ottawa, and St. Louis," MLS Commissioner Don Garber eulogized at the time. "We didn't sense that same local buzz from the soccer community in Miami."

And therein is the rub. Demographically, this should be a sure-fire fútbol region — if only your average fan weren't more inclined to watch his home country's clubs on satellite television than to visit a tin-bleachered minor-league stadium next to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

Since 2006, the front-office denizens of Miami FC, one of 12 teams in the United Soccer Leagues (USL), have labored like mad scientists to solve the attendance dilemma. In its first season, the team signed Romário de Souza Faria, a 40-year-old Brazilian soccer demigod who General Manager Luis Muzzi says "put us on the map." But attendance at Tropical Park in Miami hovered around 2,000, and the team has yet to finish above fifth place in the league. This offseason, Miami FC's corporate owner, Brazil-based Traffic Sports, threatened to pull the plug. President Aaron Davidson channeled his inner televangelist as he begged for more season ticket buyers in a mid-March news release: "Does South Florida truly want a professional soccer team?"

On March 19, the parent company announced it would keep Miami FC alive. The reprieve gave Muzzi quite a task: assemble a 24-player team in three weeks. Only three players remained from the previous season.

He scrambled to sign 35-year-old Colombian Diego Serna, former Miami Fusion star and the all-time top scorer on that team. Another pickup: shiny-domed Zourab ''Zee'' Tsiskaridze, from the former Soviet state of Georgia, who beat out more than a hundred other hopefuls at an open tryout.

But the big find was the Cubans. Reinier Alcántara grew up in Cuba's easternmost province, Pinar del Río, and Pedro Faife was raised in the soccer-crazy village of Zulueta in Villa Clara. From age 10, they played each other in youth tournaments, and in their 20s, they became teammates on the Cuban national soccer team. Alcántara's game-tying goal in the final minutes of a match against Guatemala in a 2007 tournament of the Americas made him a legend. "All of Cuba knows who they are," says Rafael Alberto, Faife's cousin and a local youth soccer coach. "They would never be able to walk down the street without being recognized."

But "there's a certain ceiling playing in Cuba," Faife says. He wanted to provide more money for his wife, Lilia, and their 4-year-old son, also named Pedro. Thirteen teammates had defected since 2002, and he began to hungrily eye their freedom.

The unattached forward Alcántara had for years considered defecting. He would have made a break for it in 2007, when Cuba played in the Gold Cup at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, but he thought about his father, Orestes, stricken with terminal liver cancer. Alcántara didn't want to be abroad when he died. "When I came back home, I talked to my dad about it. He told me I should go, and so when we came back to the United States, I didn't hesitate."

On October 9, 2008, the Cuban team was in Washington, D.C., for a game against the United States. They were staying at the DoubleTree Crystal City hotel. "I saw an open door, and I just ran," Alcántara says. He jumped into the first taxi he could find, which took him to the home of a waiting friend.

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