When Reisanndri Fernandez left Havana with the Cuban national soccer team on Oct. 10, he told no one of his plans. Not even his family.
The flight to Canada, the bus ride to the hotel, it all went off as the Cuban team had intended.
Athletes defecting is a common occurrence for communist Cuba, especially when travelling anywhere near the United States. So when in Canada, teams take extra precautions to prevent them from making an escape.
The players were instructed to surrender their passports to team officials once they had checked in at the Delta Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto, and would be under close watch for the remainder of the trip as they prepared to take on Canada in a World Cup qualifying match a few days later.
As the bus pulled up to the team hotel, Fernandez was working his own angle. He had chosen a seat near the front of the bus, so that he would not be the first player off and assured he would not be caught behind the crowd.
As his teammates descended and made a right towards the hotel, Fernandez walked left, slipping out to the street. He quickly flagged down a passing cab. Not knowing a word of English, he shouted "Vamos!" Vamos!" and the confused cabbie sped away.
Dropped off only a few blocks away, he had done it. But with only a few dollars in his pocket, his team gear and his passport in hand, he suddenly found himself alone, dead-smack in the middle of Canada's biggest city.
Flash forward to today. Thanks to the help of a few generous strangers, Fernandez is starting to make a new life for himself in Canada.
Sitting in the kitchen of a house in one of Toronto's wealthiest neighbourhoods, you could never tell the soft-spoken man in front of you was a Cuban defector. Well-manicured and wearing nice, clean clothes, through the aid of a translator he told the exclusive story of his escape, of seeking asylum and of his true love -- soccer.
"That cab driver sure was confused," Fernandez laughed. "But it was God who dropped me off here," gesturing to the soccer field behind his new home.
"I have been playing soccer since I was nine-years-old. All I did in Cuba was soccer, soccer, soccer -- it was my life.
"I love the game and it has brought me here," he continued. "I hope to continue my career in Canada."
But Fernandez leaves behind a huge hole back home. His brother, who also plays for the national team, did not travel with it this time. Keeping family members separate is one of the precautions Cuban officials take to prevent defections.
Fernandez lived in a small, three-bedroom house with his siblings, mother and wife, and spoke to them on the phone last week for the first time since he got out.
"Of course, they are sad that I left," he said. "But they are very happy for me as well.
"My mother knows this means a better life for all of us."
In Cuba, he would make $10 a month playing for the national team and his local club team. When he travelled with the national team, he would bring cigars and sell them to the locals in whatever country they were playing in. One box of cigars could mean nearly a year's worth of wages for Fernandez and his family.
"Cuba is very poor," he said. "It's a very hard life.
"This is a big opportunity now, for all of us."
'It's just very different here'
Fernandez was not the only player to defect. Three others made their way to the U.S. ahead of the game and were granted entry. Fernandez knew nothing of their plans, but knows he faces serious jail time if he were ever to return to Cuba. As such, he chooses his words carefully.
"It's just very different there," he said. "But I like Canada.
"The weather is a bit cold. But the people are very nice."
It's never easy moving to a new place and more so given the circumstances. But Fernandez is learning how to get by in a completely different world -- one with Facebook, fast food and subways -- as he continues to do what he loves. Training twice a day, the defender is now speaking to soccer contacts as much as he is immigration lawyers.
"I am looking at playing for teams here," he said. "At 28-years-old, I would be a good addition to most clubs.
"But I am looking at my life, looking for jobs, after soccer as well."
'A boring game'
Fernandez has friends at the Montreal Impact. But he has been temporarily adopted by some in the soccer community in Toronto.
He finally arrived to BMO Field last Saturday, albeit about two weeks late, as the guest of a Toronto FC season-ticket holder. Sitting in the upper deck of the stadium, he watched the local side limp to scoreless draw with rival Montreal.
"It was, kind of, a boring game," he said. "I could not figure out why they were not playing the ball in the air more.
"They did not move the ball very well, given that it was wet."
Assessing the troubles of the beleaguered, local soccer team?
Seems like Fernandez will fit in just fine.
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