Sun | Dec 11, 2016

Reggae Girlz move to write own chapter

Published:Friday | October 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Downswell

Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer

KANSAS CITY, United States:

In the rough-and-tumble world of Jamaica's international football, Reggae Boyz have snatched all the glory. Now, however, it appears that the Girlz are starting to win hearts.

Despite being shut out of top tournaments past, unlike their male counterparts who have contested one senior and three junior World Cups, Jamaica are currently among the final eight teams competing the CONCACAF Women's Championships, the final qualifying step towards a berth in next year's World Cup. The 'strike hard' force is finding a soft spot among those who have crossed their paths.

"I just love that," a female hotel attendee gushed after getting a translation of the Girlz' patois prayer, 'Gimmi Jesus', displayed in a team meeting room here.

Will Hitzelberger, an American trainer, drafted to whip the Girlz into shape for the tournament, is another convert.

"This has been such a humble group of women," said Hitzelberger, who admitted his experience working with the Girlz over several weeks has whet his appetite to do more for Jamaica.

The senior Girlz have started to accelerate even as the Boyz remain mired in a prolonged winless streak and plunging in the world football rankings. Admiration for their passion and commitment has come not just from outsiders, but from veterans who have witnessed both sides of the nation's football's gender coin - especially the support disparity which, up to recently, was so gaping that the expectations for the Girlz in competition rarely rose above lukewarm. This tournament, which Jamaica kicked off yesterday against Martinique, is different. It finally offers the Girlz a chance to claim the national spotlight.

"People back winners and the women have not achieved anything as such," explained Wendell Downswell, who has coached Jamaica teams at several levels, including youth World Cups, and is here assisting Girlz head coach Merron Gordon.

"This (tournament) is a possibility for (qualifying) to become a reality. If it does, I believe it will change the whole concept of how women's football is perceived. This is a chance for them to put themselves on the map."

'THEY FULLY DESERVE IT'

Downswell believes they fully deserve it. After years of struggling for support, the Girlz received a big boost when Cedella Marley joined forces with the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF). A month-long camp which led into the CONCACAF round is just one benefit which, in prior years, was almost unfathomable due to JFF funding restrictions and the Girlz' inability to generate their own revenue.

"With all fairness to the Federation, the sole breadwinner is the men's team, and that income has to filter down to all units - female and youth," said Downswell. "That is an enormous burden."

But the Girlz plan to make the most of their new-found windfall, and unlike the Boyz at times, they've refused to allow egos to derail their ambitions.

"The ladies are like sponges," explained Downswell. "They want to learn everything ... Most men are egotistical - not necessarily to say they won't produce, but in the sense that they tend to use it negatively."

Jamaica's women understand no one owes them anything, wisdom some male counterparts could use. Almost all play for free. But they will scrap and scrape to claim their right to play and be taken seriously. It's showing on the field in passion, awareness and team building.

"I always say females are more receptive," said Gordon, who has also coached male teams at local Premier League and schoolboy levels. "Boys come in thinking that they have already gained everything in terms of tactical approach."

Now it's time for the women to claim their biggest prize - a World Cup berth - and build on the admiration they've already generated.