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Halifax Wanderers Alejandro Portal

Former Cuba Internationals Set To Face Toronto FC In Stadium Where ‘New Life’ Began

By on April 24, 2024 0 1806 Views

He had minutes to choose what to do. Thinking quickly, Alejandro Portal made a decision that would change his life forever.

The Cuban international was back in the hotel following his country’s six-nil loss to Canada. The team had already seen two players defect ahead of the match, and security was tight in the aftermath of the brazen escapes: players had to surrender their phones after team dinner and were sequestered to their rooms, limiting their contact – and opportunity – with the outside world.

Cuba Alejandro Portal
Photo Credit: Canada Soccer

Still, there was a gut feeling that night that told Portal he should step out from the confines of his room and go into the hallway. Already standing in the off-limits shared space was his teammate Andy Baquero, who had played most of the match against Canada. “I want to share something with you,” Baquero said quietly, motioning for Alejandro to come closer.

What he said next would change Portal’s life forever: it was an opportunity to stay in Canada. That’s something Alejandro had zero doubt he wanted to do, he just didn’t have anyone in the city who could help him do it. Baquero did, though: he had family members who were going to be parked outside the hotel in short order, and he offered to take Alejandro with him.

Put on the spot with a choice to make, Alejandro’s head swirled: it was his Mother’s birthday, and he had spoken to her over the telephone just hours ago. If he ran now, there’d be no telling when he could see her again. Defecting to Canada would grant him an opportunity for a better life, but at what cost? He made the difficult choice.

“I said to my friend, this is the time to go,” says Portal, who had to go downstairs and convince the coach he needed his phone back to make a quick call. Having been with the national team for four years, he was trusted enough for that, with his coach allowing him time for a quick phone call. He headed for his room. There would be suspicion if the phone wasn’t returned in short order, so it was now or never. He had to commit to the jump or step away from ledge.

“I grabbed my backpack, we run and find the exit, and we go outside. His family was waiting for us in the parking lot. After that, new life,” says Portal. “I will never forget that night for me.”

Before piling into the van behind Baquero, the Cuban international took a deep breath before committing an action that could never be undone.

“When I breath, I feel that this is the country I want to make my future – from there, we start.”

He gets in the van. A squeal of tires precedes a blur of motion as the hotel fades away, and a new life enters view.

Simcoe County Rovers Orlendis Benitez
Photo Courtesy: Simcoe County Rovers

Benitez’s own account mirrors Portal’s, albeit that it took place before the match against Canada: he had a family connection in Toronto through an uncle that he had never met him before. After a pre-matchday team lunch in the hotel, he gathered his belongings and ran down a stairwell to meet him and defect, all at once. He was gone moments later, with his uncle helping him sort out his living situation and prepare the paperwork required to keep Benitez in Canada. His uncle was quite knowledgeable with the latter, having been a baseball player who defected here in the ’90s.

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The penalty for defection is steep: neither player has been able to see their families since they left Cuba ahead of that fateful night in 2019. It’s near-impossible to secure travel for their loved ones into Canada, whilst Cuba imposes an eight-year ban on returning to their homeland. They’re more than halfway there now, but that does little to sooth how much the sons miss their parents, friends, and close family members who still live back in their homeland.

It’s been four-and-a-half years since that fateful night, and the duo has done well in the time since: their papers have been long sorted, they work full-time jobs, and both have fully revived their football careers. When they first started making income, what didn’t go to rent quickly went to their second home: the football pitch.

“That first construction job helped me a lot, I really appreciate the opportunity they gave me to start a life. With that money, I could start to pay rent, and start to play soccer,” reflects Portal.

The duo laced up for a local Ukrainian-centric team, helping them go from second-last to complete an improbable undefeated run to the final. While they bowed out there, their performances landed them with the Vaughan Soccer Club, where Patrice Gheisar took notice of the talent they displayed, elevating them to the League1 Ontario level.

Halifax Wanderers Alejandro Portal
Photo Credit: David Chant

Both would return to professional heights, with Orlendis featuring for Forge FC while Alejandro would sign with the Halifax Wanderers, making eleven appearances as a mid-season addition. In fact, his time there even saw him face a Major League Soccer side in CF Montreal, who knocked Portal’s club out of the cup. He featured against them as a substitute.

“I will never forget that game,” he reflects. “When I came on, I went really, really hard. I didn’t feel nervous, nothing. I took five touches, I completed 100% of them. I was fresh, but the rest of the team was tired and [Montreal] scored two goals in the last seven minutes.”

The duo would eventually land with the Simcoe County Rovers, who enjoyed a stellar sophomore League1 Ontario season that saw them go all the way in playoffs, lifting the trophy and earning the chance to play in Canada’s domestic cup this year.

Simcoe County Rovers Orlendis Benitez
Photo Credit: Simcoe County Rovers

The cup tournament now sees the Rovers drawn against Toronto FC, one of the biggest teams in the competition, and certainly the biggest club the Rovers have ever faced. It’s the matchup of the club’s dreams and, for the players of the semi-pro side, the game of their lives. For Alejandro and Orlendis, it also means a fateful return to BMO Field.

“It’s gonna be a big challenge. The thing is, we can do it,” adds Benitez. “We just have to run, sacrifice, and try to better than them – that’s the key. I think we got the opportunity, so now we have to take it.”

They’re big words, but the L1O standout has receipts to back it up. Orlendis won the League1 Ontario midfielder of the year award following the Rovers’ championship run, with the fast-footed Rover racking up no less than eight team of the week nods. He credits this to the teammates around him, using that comradery as an example of how his semi-pro side from Barrie could surprise their Major League neighbours down the 400.

That’s a stretch of highway that will see at least two busloads of fans from Simcoe County make the trip, with the club hoping to see as many as 2,000 supporters cheering on the underdogs at BMO Field overall.

“We’re really happy with the fans, they support the team every single match, every weekend. Whether it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s raining, no matter what they support. Against TFC, it’s going to be a beautiful and amazing night for everyone,” adds Portal, who believes that the gap between MLS, CPL, and League1 Ontario isn’t as big as one might think.

“It’s not that big,” he says, doubling down. “It’s just the mentality. The soccer is not that different.”

He points out how CPL clubs like Forge and Cavalry have already given MLS sides a run for their money, the latter of whom provided the first-ever upset between the two leagues. In turn, he says the gap between CPL and L1O isn’t that big, either.

He still knows they’re heavy underdogs, however, and he doesn’t take the match lightly. After all, the last time he faced Jonathan Osorio, it was the national team match that saw him suffer a 6-0 defeat. He’d been tasked with marking Alphonso Davies that night, with Richie Laryea also making his Team Canada debut and doing well.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: it’s gonna be tough, because if you think it’s gonna be easy, you are wrong,” comes a simple summary.

The duo have faith in new Rovers head coach Zico, who had been an assistant during their championship run. He’s proven himself to the players, earning their trust through sound judgment and a strong desire to match even their own hardwired ambitions.

Simcoe County Rovers Alejandro Portal Orlendis Benitez
Photo Courtesy: Simcoe County Rovers FC

As a club, the standards have always been high: the Rovers have established themselves as a developmental powerhouse in League1 Ontario, with numerous players stepping up to professional heights. While it remains to be seen if Portal and Benitez will return to that level, the duo say they owe the club plenty of gratitude: the Rovers helped them secure full-time employment with Anco Chemicals and sorted their housing situation, going well above and beyond the pull a League1 Ontario side is expected to have.

“They are very important to us,” says Alejandro of both his club and his full-time employer, who booked a box suite at BMO Field to watch them play. “They treat us like family. They help us with everything we need.”

This will mark their first time stepping onto the pitch at BMO Field since they had arrived there on national team duty with Cuba all those years ago. A lot has changed since, and the moment carries weight.

“For me it means a lot – I am born again, you know? It’s been a new life with new opportunity. When I step onto that pitch, there will be so many things that come to mind. I just…I don’t have the words,” says Portal, who takes a moment to steady himself back into football mode.

“We have to enjoy the moment and try to do our best. Listen to the coach and follow the instructions. After that, in football anything can happen – it’s eleven versus eleven, man-to-man. It’s just mental, and you have to do your best for the first minute to the last.”

Simple, right?

Given how they got here, showing up against Toronto FC is still far from the hardest thing they’ve ever done. That was the choice they made ahead of that BMO Field

Fans can tune into the Canadian Championship clash between Toronto FC and the Simcoe County Rovers this Wednesday at 7:30PM EST. The match will be available on OneSoccer, fuboTV, and Telus Optik Channel 980.

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