Well, in the midst of reports chronicling the mercenary nature of Qatar’s national team there’s surely been a couple of questions folks have been wondering. How does a Cuban become a world class handball player? And, how does a Cuban end up playing for Qatar?
Well, the answer to the first question is that he’s a product of Cuba’s development system. Perhaps the last remaining example of a communist style sports program, even if it’s been running on life support for the last decade or so. Handball is not a huge sport in Cuba, but nevertheless it’s gotten some level of government support for years. Players with potential are identified and they train together as a national team. I’m sure there’s some choice in doing so, but the arm of the government also surely makes recruitment easier and participation strongly encouraged for those selected.
And, because other nations in Pan America put little emphasis on the sport Cuba has traditionally been a power in this hemisphere. At times, they’ve even been competitive on the world scene. But, every time this has happened defections have decimated the team. Two notable players from earlier times are Rolando Urios and Carlos Perez who played for Spain and Hungary, respectively.
Capote’s defection is more recent and ironically enough Capote has now come back full circle to the city of his defection. At the 2007 PANAM Games in Rio, Capote snuck out of his room with the clothes he had on, $300 and in the pouring rain he took a taxi to Sao Paulo where a former teammate was living. Just 19 at the time, Capote then began a rather eclectic handball journey. Playing first in Brazil, surely at a semi-professional or low paid level before moving on to Italy. Italy is by no means a handball power, but for some reason it’s league that has been a stepping stone for a number of players from Latin America. Obviously he played well otherwise he wouldn’t have been signed in Spain where he really started to get noticed, even becoming the EHF player of the week. And, then when Qatar was awarded the World Cup, and hired a Spanish coach, it probably didn’t take Coach Rivera to consider bringing along a Cuban who hasn’t played internationally for several years. Heck, I’m guessing that the crafty Rivera figured he could turn this pretty good back into a great back with a little time. Something that’s clearly been accomplished and is just but one piece to the puzzle that has made this collection of decent cast offs a medal contender.
I wonder how Capote feels now having returned to the scene of his defection? Just 9 years ago, he was 19 years old, scared, making the decision to leave the country of his birth (perhaps forever). Surely not really knowing if this risk was worth taking. Think about the “big decisions” you’ve made in your life and whether they pale in comparison. Talk about a leap of faith and crossing the Rubicon! He could not have even imagined a journey that would take him from Brazil to Italy to Spain to Qatar and back to Rio nine years later as an Olympian. Walking into the opening ceremonies in flowing Arabic robes representing a country he probably had never heard of before.? Heck, I can hardly imagine it. And, while I’m no fan of the mercenary nature of the Qatari team I can’t fault Capote for taking this monetary and career opportunity. Heck, I can’t help but root for him.
Rafael Capote Wikipedia page (Spanish): Link
Brazzil.com article on his defection in 2007: Link