Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Tanya Lee | The Reggae Girlz’s Long Road to Success

Published:Friday | June 7, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Cedella Marley (lower, second right), manager Jean Nelson (right) and Jamaica's senior women's football team moments after their victory over Panama in an international friendly at the National Stadium in Kingston on Sunday, May 19. File

This week, while researching the Reggae Girlz, I came upon a video that caught my attention. The late Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) president, Captain Horace Burrell, sat before a sea of female footballers at the association’s headquarters. Burrell was in high spirits as he spoke to the women.

“I know how hard all of you (footballers) have been working over the years, and if there’s one concern that has always troubled the JFF, it’s the fact that there hasn’t been enough support for our ‘Girlz’.

“That individual who has decided to lend her support and become an ambassador for women’s football is none other than the daughter of the great reggae superstar Bob Marley. She is Cedella Marley!” he announced to roof-raising applause.

It was 2014, four years before Jamaica would historically qualify for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Bob Marley Foundation was on board as the sole sponsor of the team. Women’s football had a long history and started across the island in 1964. Jamaica-born Beverly Ranger even popularised women’s football in Germany in 1975. Ranger became our first professional female footballer and the first woman ever to be endorsed by Puma.

STRUGGLES

Locally, since then, the women’s senior team had been disbanded repeatedly. The game struggled with lack of visibility, lack of funding and no consistent developmental plan for decades. The women’s league was indebted since 2001 to sole title sponsors, Sherwin Williams. The sport sees over 50 schools participating in the ISSA Schoolgirls’ Football Competition and hundreds in the women’s business house competition, but little by way of the senior programme.

It was no surprise, thus, that Cedella Marley knew little about the programme, finding out about the Reggae Girlz via a flyer her son brought home from school. It was a flyer some parents had created to generate funds for the Girlz. Cedella contacted the JFF, and the rest is literally history. But what she learned as she sought sponsorship for the 2015 campaign across the island was troubling.

In her own words, as said to ESPN’s Sam Borden: “People were saying no to them simply because they were girls, and they didn’t think they should be playing football, and I didn’t understand that concept. Are you telling them they can’t play because they’re female?”

She continued: “I have, like, 25 nieces, and I would not like anyone to tell them no just because they’re women. I don’t understand the concept of telling women they can’t play just because they’re female. That got me a little more angry as it was really a gender-specific problem rather than them not having the money to fund the programme.”

Cedella looked beyond our shores and eventually found like-minded support via the Alacran Foundation. Alacran Group CEO Hopi Noel Morton rationalised their support.

“Even though Jamaica is small, it is extremely famous, and Jamaica has a lot of legacies to connect to, and football is one of them,” she said. “Little girls look to them as superheroes, so we just wanted to help them fly.”

But their wings had been clipped so often before that many who had poured years of effort into the programme were beginning to lose hope.

Vin Blaine, former women’s technical director and former head coach, lamented the treatment of women’s football.

GIRLZ UNDER PRESSURE

“The Girlz programme is always under pressure as some people don’t see it as important ... as a coach I see it as being very important,” Blaine said in 2012.

“I believe wholeheartedly that if we emphasise women’s football, we will make a World Cup, but it can’t just happen overnight. You must have a sustainable programme that exposes the Girlz to proper games,” he added.

History has vindicated Blaine’s belief. Current head coach Hue Menzies took the baton and made that dream a reality. It was Cedella who contacted Menzies, and he hastily volunteered to help develop the women’s programme as an adviser and technical director. He wasn’t paid, initially, as the JFF had nothing budgeted for the women’s game.

And so, here we are, on the eve of Jamaica’s first match against Brazil. The faces within the squad are quite different from where this campaign started in 2014, but our current Girlz rest on the shoulders of a long list of women, and a few good men, who have paved this long road to success, which continues after the World Cup. Still, there remains one very familiar face among them in France, and, hopefully, for years to come.

“I can’t help but feel responsible for the journey. I tried to get everything they needed to succeed, and the rest is up to them,” Cedella reasons. For her, the motivation is love.

“I love the game, I love the girls, and I love my country, and I think all three deserve my attention.” One love.