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Cuba admits defections taking toll on sports performance

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - The head of Cuba's volleyball federation has blamed a decline in the country's competitiveness on foreign teams poaching its best players in a rare official admission that defections have hurt Cuban performance in international events.

The comments came just as a depleted Cuban baseball team returned home from a disappointing early elimination in the Caribbean Series of baseball tournament in Venezuela.

Cuba has often lamented that Major League Baseball has siphoned off some of its best talent to the United States. The complaint about volleyball players was directed more toward Italy and Brazil, where male and female stars from Cuba have defected to play professionally.

Cuba returned to the Caribbean Series of baseball this month after a 54-year absence, raising hopes among fans of the national sport, but the Cuban team was eliminated after winning only one game out of four against teams from Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

"The number one reason for this significant decline in our competitive results has been the subversive campaign by certain sectors in different countries, who without showing any respect for the integrity of the Cuban federation have bought Cuban players so that they abandon our national team," the president of the Cuban Volleyball Federation, Ariel Sainz, told the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma in Friday's edition.

To combat defections, Cuba this year started allowing its athletes to play professional sports abroad, while also offering them slightly better pay incentives at home.

Too many obstacles remain for baseball players to join MLB teams without defecting, but Cubans have played in other countries' professional baseball leagues. Under the law, the Cuban state taxes part of their earnings and maintains rights over the players, such as recalling them to play for the national team.

Cuba has dominated volleyball and baseball in the international arena, with multiple Olympic gold medals and world championships in each sport.

After a number of high-profile male and female volleyball defections in the last decade, the sport has yet to recover. In the latest World League season, the Cuban men's team won only once in 10 matches.

The most notable baseball defections have occurred in recent years, when some of Cuba's best players have signed multimillion-dollar contracts to play abroad.

The Chicago White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal in October following the recent success of pitchers Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins and Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds as well as outfielders Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's.

Others, however, have left their families behind and failed.

"The Cuban player has become the center of attention for these merchants," Sainz added. "They make these offers for a possible material solution to their problems and then a lot of the (athletes who leave) are disappointed."

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Daniel Trotta, G Crosse)

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