Police interviews and faulty planes - the inside track on Onel's Cuba bow
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Onel Hernandez’s transatlantic trek last month from Norwich to represent his country was a labour of love.
The 28-year-old made his debut at half-time in a World Cup qualifier in Guatemala, following a frantic dash that saw him only arrive at the stadium 40 minutes after kick-off.
But the Cuban authorities have now disclosed every twist of the dramatic story, that started with a request for Hernandez to miss City’s 1-1 Championship draw against Blackburn four days earlier.
Here is the translated version published by Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, taken from testimony with the City wide player and government officials.
Consultations with the Cuban Embassy in Guatemala, and vice versa, indicated that the planned travel route for Onel would be impractical, as the United States had established restrictions on travellers from the United Kingdom.
Communication with the player then became more intense. It happened at any time, even at dawn taking into account the time difference between Havana and the United Kingdom. The goal was to find a solution so that the player could arrive in time for the first game.
As Onel did not have an official Cuban passport, the efforts of our embassy in Guatemala had to be duplicated. Long days of work passed until each document was ready, his and those of other athletes in similar conditions, which involved several Cuban embassies in Europe and America.
The authorities evaluated the pertinence of bringing Onel to Havana, with the aim of having him board the charter chartered for the delegation to Guatemala City (from Spain). For this, a ticket was arranged.
However, a new impediment would arise shortly, as common as it may seem. Norwich City played on Saturday March 20, and although the exoneration of the athlete on that day was requested, they did not authorise it, nor did they place him on the pitch.
In such circumstances, Onel lost the ticket for the plane that would take him from London to Spain.
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The athlete, who, already desperate, tried to charter a private flight to Havana. This is how he expressed his desire to play with the selection. Here it was considered an exorbitant expense and he was asked not to do it.
New options crossed his mind, such as renting a charter to Spain, also very expensive, for which he never received a landing permit in Madrid.
A ticket was obtained from London to Mexico, where there are no (Covid) restrictions to the United Kingdom. From there he would continue his trip to Guatemala.
Then new eruptions from the Pacaya volcano bathed the city in ashes and forced the closure of La Aurora International Airport. Even nature was against Onel and other athletes arriving on time.
But let's go back to Havana: on Sunday, 72 hours before the first game, Onel's entry into Guatemala could not yet be confirmed. This was due to the fact that a protocol was in force in that country that prevented the entry of travellers from the United Kingdom.
The Cuban Embassy in Guatemala got the foreign ministry of that country and the ministry of public health and social welfare to authorise the entry of Onel with a negative (Covid) result.
But the Pacaya continued spitting ashes and in La Aurora everything continued to be cancelled: no one entered or left. Hours passed and it was obvious that our man would be stranded in Mexico.
Onel could try to make a connection with another country and find a land access to Guatemala City.
El Salvador was again investigated, a country that maintained the restriction for travellers from the United Kingdom, but allowed access in transit. In the end that option was rejected.
Only then was it suggested Onel travel to Tapachula, capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas, 300 kilometres from Guatemala City. The solution then was for him to travel by car, for a journey of almost six hours and at the expense of encountering blocked roads and other dangers.
Onel arrived at around 1pm. There were only five hours left before the start of the game. With the support of the Cuban consul in Guatemala, the co-ordination of the final transfer was undertaken.
But times were getting shorter and other ideas emerged (to a taxi transfer), such as using a helicopter or light plane to close the route.
Two hours later everything was ready: we had the permits and the light plane that would be in charge of moving our player. A Cuban technical officer would have the mission of accompanying him. However, when starting take-off, a technical fault occurred in the aircraft and it had to be replaced, delaying the flight for another hour.
At the same time, alarming news arrived from Tapachula, as the Mexican police asked Onel about the real reasons for his stay there and came to interview him individually in an isolated room.
A diplomat immediately contacted the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs and the immigration sub-delegation in Tapachula.
The Mexican foreign ministry indicated to its consul general in the Guatemalan city of Tecún Umán, who gave assurances he would travel to the Tapachula airport to protect Onel. Telephone communication with the athlete was lost for more than an hour.
It was from the Cuban Embassy in Guatemala contact could be re-established and confirmed that the steps were taking effect. The young man was located by the Mexican immigration authorities and located in the terminal waiting for his plane.
Our starting XI entered the Guamuch Flores stadium without Onel in the starting list. He was not there, he had not arrived in the city.
Taking into account the intense traffic the Cuban consul asked for a police escort for the airport transfer to the stadium. And it was achieved.
The vehicle and its driver knew of the predicament. Onel changed in the back. He would go almost straight to the pitch. The police escort offered presidential treatment. Nothing stopped them, not even the sidewalks.
Five minutes later Onel was finally at the stadium. It was the 40th minute of the game.
He warmed up and entered as a substitute just at the beginning of the second half.
Onel ran and fought for every ball, fought like a good Cuban and shared the 1-0 defeat with his people. He proved to be a staunch defender of his roots. Four days later, against Curaçao, he scored his first goal with the national team and moved a crowd that finally confirmed his football quality, and which certainly did not know the details that we can now narrate.