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Two Cuban soccer players still missing in California

© Reuters 2002

BURBANK, Calif., Jan 26 (Reuters) - Two Cuban soccer players competing with the national team in an international tournament in the United States, were still missing on Saturday, police said, after failing to return to their Los Angeles area hotel on Thursday in an apparent bid to defect.

The president of the Cuban Soccer Federation reported strikers Rey Angel Martinez, 21, and Alberto Delgado, 22, missing on Thursday evening after they missed their curfew.

"The whole team was staying at the Hilton hotel (in Burbank). They were anxious because they were leaving the next morning to make their flight from Los Angeles," Lt. Chris Welker with the Burbank police told Reuters.

The team was returning home after being knocked out in the early stages of the 12-team CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament following a 1-0 loss to the United States and a 0-0 tie with South Korea.

"We reported them missing, but found no evidence of foul play. Being from Cuba, there was some speculation that perhaps this may be deliberate," Welker said.

"To my knowledge, they're still missing at this time," added Welker, who could not comment on reports the pair had defected.

The Miami Herald's Spanish edition, El Nuevo Herald, reported on Saturday that one of the players had contacted the paper, saying they wanted to stay in the United States and play for a Major League Soccer team.

The paper also quoted a relative who said the players planned to travel to Miami where Martinez has family.

Welker said police were told the missing Cubans have acquaintances in the Los Angeles area, but said they did not know of their whereabouts when contacted by police.

Cuban sports authorities in Havana, as is their custom in such cases, declined to comment.

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