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 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.
He had no idea his lankier teammate would make a similar break for it the next day, aided by his aunt. "I wasn't scared," Faife insists. "I just didn't want to be caught. I had made up my mind."
Their former team lost the U.S. game 6-1, and Cuban media blasted the defectors. "They betrayed the unity of their select team and gave in to the temptations of the empire's money," one newscaster seethed in a bulletin on Cuban television.
But Faife and Alcántara were not exactly lavished with cash and opportunities after their escape. They spent the winter clearing paperwork and auditioning for teams, from MLS squads to the USL's Charleston Battery. They remained unsigned until a two-week tryout with Miami FC in April. "Thank God for Miami FC," Faife likes to say.
The general manager admits the pair's nationality is a public relations perk but insists the wiry, pesky-to-opponents Faife and stocky, natural goal-scorer Alcántara were hired only for their skills. "We've had all types of players on our team — Bolivians, Colombians, Haitians — that you might think would help with attendance," he says. "Do you see those demographics packing the stadiums to watch them? If it was a tie, I might consider their nationality, but with these guys, it wasn't even close."
Though they are celebrities back home, Faife and Alcántara have the lifestyles of foreign-exchange students. They live in guest rooms with cousins: Faife in Coral Gables, Alcántara in South Miami. Without cars, they rely on publicist Gonzalez or other teammates for rides to the stadium and practices.
They are still awaiting U.S. Soccer Federation clearance to play, but the team is confident they will play this Saturday night at Lockhart Stadium against the Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC's fifth game of the season.
Whether their presence will suddenly inspire a Cuban contingent in the bleachers or make the team a contender remains to be seen. The night after the star-struck encounter with Niurka Marco, the Blues hosted Charleston at Lockhart. Faife and Alcántara watched soberly from the stands.
Only 1,504 fans had paid the $12 entrance fee. In the dead center of the bleachers, a noisy crowd of a dozen superfans chanted to the beat of a skin drum and the toots of a kazoo-like horn. Children whacked one another with inflatable noisemakers.
In the 75th minute, a Charleston player headed in the game's only goal. It was Miami's second straight loss. Its record now stands at 2-2.
"Terrible, terrible," said Reinaldo Alvarez, a season ticket holder wearing a faded Miami Fusion jersey and taking sad puffs from a Winston. But in despair, there was hope: "We need the Cubans!"