Several players have left the Cuban men's football team that faced Canada in a World Cup qualifying match Friday in Toronto, Cuban coach Alexander Gonzalez said.
"As with any Cuban sport team that travels around the world, they are all chasing the American dream," Mr. Gonzalez said after Cuba lost 3-0 to Canada.
"And it's difficult to try to keep the team together ... Obviously it's a difficult situation for the team and it's tough for me to talk about it."
The Cuban team arrived in Toronto with 15 players but they only had 11 when they played because four men had left the team, he said. One of those was sick he added, but Mr. Gonzalez did not want to go into details. FIFA, the sport's international governing body, has since confirmed to media that three Cubans have in fact left the team. Their whereabouts are unknown.
A spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not confirm reports that the players tried to cross into the United States at the Niagara Falls border point Thursday.
Tom Rusert cited privacy concerns as a reason why he couldn't give out any information. He added that no arrests were made in relation to this case.
Canada dressed 10 substitutes for the game. Cuba's bench was empty except for its coaches.
Already out of the World Cup, having failed to score a single goal in its first four games in this round of qualifying, Mr. Gonzalez had brought his Cuban team to Canada to fulfill its penultimate fixture before bowing out of the tournament for another four years.
Rumours of defections to the United States swirled, with Twitter reports claiming that up to seven players had been stopped at the Niagara crossing on Thursday night.
Mr. Gonzalez, a former Cuban national team player, wanted to focus on the game rather that the whereabouts of the missing players but, when pressed after the defeat, blamed world governing body FIFA for his predicament.
"If FIFA would allow these players to play in other leagues, perhaps this wouldn't happen in the future," he said.
Whether that ever happens remains to be seen. But on Friday night at Toronto's BMO Field, Gonzalez was left in the embarrassing position of having to leave his substitutes list blank when he handed in his team sheet, praying that injuries or ejections would not leave his side shorthanded, and closer to the limit of a seven-player minimum for a match to go ahead.
Canadian counterpart Stephen Hart decided not to tell the players what had unfolded, hoping to keep their focus on the game plan at hand.
"We looked at the lineup which was largely their starting lineup except for one player I think," he said. "I thought it was better the players don't go into the game thinking let's just go helter skelter in the first half and try to score a lot of goals because in my experience that's when you make the most mistakes as a team."
There were no such mistakes in the first half, especially once Tosaint Ricketts had given the home side a 15th-minute lead following some nice interchanging between Simeon Jackson and Ante Jazic down the left. But despite dominating the game with a 21-2 shot differential, Canada entered the interval with just a solitary goal and looking for a change of fortune.
The soccer gods decided to do just that in 71st minute when Cuban forward Roberto Linares was issued a straight red card for bodychecking Canadian defender Andre Hainault.
Canada wasted little time taking full advantage, with Will Johnson burying a header at the other end to effectively end the game as a contest, and put the home side firmly on course for the full three points, with David Edgar adding the icing on the cake with 12 minutes remaining.
The performance was enough to impress the Cuban coach, who feels Canada has a good chance to go to Honduras next Tuesday and get the result it needs to progress to the last round of World Cup qualifying.
"The three top teams right now are all rivals and fighting for top spot.," Gonzalez said through the translator. "Panama has grown quite a bit in the last couple of games but Canada is a very solid group and they'll give Honduras a run for their money."
They'll have to do it without forward Olivier Occean though. The Eintracht Frankfurt striker joined Linares in taking the long walk down the tunnel, earning a harsh red card trying to regain the ball following Johnson's goal, with the referee deeming his tussle with Cuban goalkeeper Molina Odelin to have overstepped the mark.
"It's nonsense. It's totally nonsense," Occean said afterwards in a pointed stab at the refereeing in the match. "That's why it's so frustrating and I don't want to say anything stupid here because it's nonsense and I'm missing the next game because of this nonsense."
On the plus side, Canada won't necessarily need Occean's goal-scoring touch in that game. With Honduras only managing to draw at group leader Panama late Friday night, avoiding defeat Tuesday would be good enough to propel Canada into the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997.
But Canada is not going down to Honduras to "park the bus," as Jose Mourinho once said of desperate, back-to-the-wall defending.
"Steve's not that kind of manager and we're not that kind of team," said Edgar. "I think that invites pressure on teams but it's going to different, the biggest game of my career so far, especially in a Canada jersey, but to be honest I'm really excited for it and we just have to deal with the pressure as a team, as a unit. It's a game of football really at the end of the day. And Steve said that to us, if we played these teams in a park on Sunday we'd win convincingly."
-- With files from Canadian Press