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Cape is home to former Cuban soccer star

May 16, 2014
By CHUCK BALLARO - Special to the Breeze , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

For Yusbel Fernandez, a Sunday playing between the pipes for his team in the Southwest Florida Latin American Soccer League is the perfect way for him to unwind after a tough week of work.

Just by looking at him you can see he knows what he's doing, that his ability is far more than that of his opponents.

That's because about a decade ago, he was one of the top goalkeepers in Cuba, and even played for its national team. Like many other athletes from that nation, the economy was such that he couldn't support his family. So, he left.

He did it the hard way, on a life raft to Mexico, where he spent 10 days in an attempt to have a new life.

Fernandez, 32, now lives in Cape Coral and works as a roofer, his life much better than it was despite being separated from his family. When he has that Sunday when he can wear his black goalkeeper's jersey, it makes everything he has done all week worth it.

"I love being the keeper. It's everything to me," Fernandez said through interpreter Gary Duke, who added that soccer is so important in many parts of the world that couples have broken up or come close to divorce over it.

Fernandez started playing soccer at age 12, and soon became one of the top goalkeepers in Cuba, playing on the country's 23-and-under team. Cuba, however, was not allowed to participate in some of those tournaments and when they did play, and had to travel to other countries, the players would defect.

Though it wasn't quite the same as being a baseball player or boxer, who are idolized in the country as its most successful sports, Fernandez said being a soccer player in Cuba gave him recognition and respect.

It just didn't put food on the table. His salary as a certified professional soccer trainer was $23 per month, which wasn't nearly enough support his two children, aged 3 and 1. So, he got on a raft, alone, and headed for Mexico, where he was adrift for 10 days.

"It's the craziest thing you'll ever do," Fernandez said, adding that if he had to do it again he would if it meant improving his life."

Today, the lessons he taught in Cuba are rubbing off on those he plays with and against. Duke said many of the players stop and watch him play.

His presence was certainly a boost for the Old Legends, a team in the Southwest Florida Latin American Soccer League comprised mostly of 40-plus year old players. This past winter they made the playoffs and went against another team in a match that went into penalty kicks.

Fans and players from other teams stopped everything to watch the drama unfold as Fernandez made a dramatic save to help his team win and advance to the finals.

Fernandez has not heard from his family since leaving Cuba and hopes one day he can return to them. He said he doesn't know if that could realistically happen in the present political climate.

Now in America, Fernandez believes there's some hope. He said he would like to continue his soccer career and maybe get an opportunity to play for the Cape Coral Hurricanes.



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