• Cedella Marley (L), the Reggae Girlz (C), Bob Marley (R) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
In early 2014, Cedella Marley’s youngest son showed her something that would spark one of the greatest chapters in Jamaica’s football history.
Robert Kidd

3 Jun 2019 - 1:19 PM  UPDATED 4 Jun 2019 - 12:13 PM

It was a flyer, from his football coach. It said Jamaica’s women’s national team – the Reggae Girlz – needed help.

“Prior to that, I wasn’t aware of their existence,” Marley, the eldest child of late reggae legend Bob Marley and wife Rita, tells The World Game.

“After making some inquiries, I realised that most people were not aware of the women’s team, much less its talent and potential.”

The team’s low profile wasn’t surprising given four years previously it was effectively cancelled. Between 2010 and 2014, the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) cut its funding to women’s programs, leaving the team in limbo.

Jamaica were unable to compete in qualifiers for the 2011 Women’s World Cup and not given a ranking by FIFA.

But, after a remarkable journey made possible in part thanks to the nation’s most famous family, the Reggae Girlz have gone from the edge of extinction to qualifying for football’s biggest stage.

This month, they will become the first Caribbean country to play at the Women’s World Cup. Drawn with Australia in a challenging Group C, the Reggae Girlz face the Matildas in the third group match, on June 18 at Grenoble's Stade des Alpes stadium.

After learning about the team’s lack of funding, Marley, the chief executive of the family’s Tuff Gong group of companies, approached the JFF to offer help.

She was appointed a team ambassador and began to raise awareness and funding for the squad. A song, “Strike Hard”, was recorded with her brothers Stephen and Damian and a crowdfunding campaign raised more than US$50,000 (A$72,000) for the 2015 Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign.

Marley also approached current head coach Hue Menzies.

“Cedella reached out to me to see if I wanted to help,” Menzies tells The World Game.

“I just wanted to give back to my country and change the mindset of people about females playing football.”

Menzies, who grew up in Jamaica and moved to the United States aged 16, worked as a maths teacher and Wall Street financial analyst before moving into coaching. He describes his role as a “volunteer” and says he is not paid a salary, other than daily expenses.

Even with a volunteer coach, the team needed funds to try to qualify for the 2019 Women’s World Cup and Marley was finding it hard to convince corporate sponsors.

“The biggest challenges have come from the old school of thought that football is not an ‘appropriate’ activity for girls,” Marley says.

“The vibe we were getting was that we should encourage the girls to put their energies elsewhere; and in some cases they would even suggest that I focus more on assisting the Reggae Boyz (Jamaica’s men’s national team).”

Last year, with time running out for the team to enter World Cup qualification, the Alacran Foundation agreed to partner with the Bob Marley Foundation to support the Reggae Girlz.

The team entered the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October, where they lost to the United States in the semi-finals. Jamaica played Panama in the third-place playoff, knowing the winner would qualify for the World Cup.

After a 2-2 draw, the match went to penalties. As Dominique Bond-Flasza scored the decisive penalty to take Jamaica to the World Cup, two of those who helped inspire the against-the-odds achievement couldn’t bear to watch.

“To be honest with you, I didn't really see the penalty,” Menzies says.

“The camera people were in front of me. All I felt was my big assistant coach – he jumped all over me.

“It was a sense of relief. After all that hard work, everything was starting to pay off for the team.”
Marley says: “I was actually too nervous to look. I left the room, but my kids were watching and I heard the noise when we won.”

Jamaica, ranked 53rd in the world, will be the lowest-ranked team in France. But results since qualifying, including twice beating Chile, have instilled confidence in the youthful side. And with star striker Khadija “Bunny” Shaw – who scored 19 times in qualifying – leading the line, the Reggae Girlz will fear no team.

“We've just got to go out there and get after it and depend a little bit on our athleticism and have some discipline in our game,” Menzies says.

“Then you don't know, you could pull a point here and there and all of a sudden you're in the second round.

“We're there, and we're not just there to show up.”

Menzies rates the Matildas highly and considers forward Sam Kerr “the best player in the world”.

“We hope that when we go into that game (against the Matildas) we don't need to win to go through because we feel like they're the gem of the group,” he says.

“We're going to have to be disciplined and mentally tough to get a result against them … but we feel athletically we can compete with any team in the World Cup, including Australia.”

The wider impact of the team’s feat is being felt in Jamaica.

“We just had a clinic in Jamaica and normally we'd have 22 or 23 kids. This time we had 120 kids,” Menzies says.

“The inspiration that we're spreading throughout the island has been unbelievable. I told the players, ‘whether you like it or not, you are the role models because you've created history’.”

Whatever happens in France, Marley says the Reggae Girlz representing the Caribbean at the Women’s World Cup is a triumph her father would be proud of.

“My mother, Rita Marley, is the biggest Reggae Girlz fan there is,” she says.

“She told me from the beginning that my father would have loved the idea because, in addition to his love for football, Bob Marley also believed that every man and woman should have the right to pursue their dreams.”