Jamaica are appearing at the Women’s World Cup for the first time in their history and it has been one hell of a journey to get here.
From 2010 to 2014 they didn’t even have a team due to a lack of funding. Just three years ago, the funding for the squad was pulled once again. So how on earth have these football minnows made it to biggest stage in world football?
One woman who changed the course of Jamaican sporting history is Cedella Marley, eldest daughter of the legendary musician Bob Marley. When her son brought a flyer home from school one day asking for funds to get the women’s football team started again, she took matters into her own hands.
Given her status, Cedella is still an influential figure in her homeland, despite residing in Miami. She made a few calls and began digging, discovering that there were teams for girls, but no senior women’s side to send to major international tournaments. When she discovered that the men’s team had had no breaks in their funding, she knew she had to act.
She told ESPN: "People were saying no to [the women], and it was for no reason. The more I got involved, the angrier I got."
Cedella made it her mission to right this wrong. She, along with just a small collection of Jamaican footballers confronted backwards gender stereotypes across their nation, raised more than $100,000 through various events - even releasing a song in 2015 to raise awareness and help fund their journey which has lead to this World Cup.
“Football is freedom.” Bob Marley.
It has not been plain sailing since Cedella got involved though. Having invested a large amount of her own money to get the team going, progress was being made on the pitch. They failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics but having a team was all that mattered for Reggae Girlz. Then it all came crashing down. For the second time in a matter of years the Jamaican federation disbanded the team.
This did not deter Cedella who instead worked even harder to drum up support for the cause. She got in touch with Alessandra Lo Savio who helped found the Alacran Foundation and convinced her to become a major benefactor and then got Hue Menzies to leave his career in finance to become the coach of the new team - initially as a volunteer.
Focusing on young exciting talent, the team began to win games on the pitch. Cedella stepped back from the frontline and wanted the side to succeed on their own merit, now she had set them on the right path. Having said that, the players still facetime her after every game they play to keep her fully in the loop.
One player stands out for the exciting side. Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw is the goalscoring sensation of the side having risen through the ranks to the first team. Given her nickname at a young age for her love for carrots and her large front teeth, Bunny faced sexism growing up.
Not allowed to play football with the boys on the field, she would wish for rain so they had to play outside her bedroom window and she could watch. One of her brothers eventually taught her to play and once she got to school the boys began to recognise her talent.
She recalls the tale of a neighbour having seen her playing football comment: “Do you know soccer is for men?” This is just one example of the sexism that is prevalent in Jamaica but this was just one of the barriers preventing her achieve her goals. Playing for the University of Tennessee in 2017 over two years, she missed several tragedies at home.
Of her seven brothers, three were killed by gangs and another died in a car accident. She could have returned home but instead stuck it out and scored 13 goals in 15 games for her club side and that was enough for the Reggae Girlz to build the team around her. The World Cup was the target but the road there would be full of challenges.
The first qualifying round was tough, having taken place in Haiti. The Jamaican players were severely weakened due to food poisoning and refused to drink the water - such was the sickness they were experiencing.
Star striker Bunny scored eight goals in three games to send her side through to the second round, where she again bagged eight goals, this time in four games to put Jamaica into the CONCACAF Women’s Championship. The final hurdle.
Wins against Cuba and Costa Rica before an expected defeat to the number one side in the world, the USA, meant it would be a straight shoot-out between Jamaica and Panama for the final place at the World Cup.
Jamaica went ahead through Bunny, inevitably, but were pegged back by a gut-wrenching equaliser. They regrouped again to go ahead in extra-time through Jody Brown but just five minutes from time, Panama equalised again to send the game to penalties.
The woman who started this journey, Cedella Marley was in Florida doing yoga, attempting to take her mind off the events that were unfurling 1000 miles away in Dallas. But she couldn’t keep her eyes off the penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Nicole McClure made two big saves before Bond-Flasza fired the winning spot-kick in. The Reggae Girlz had done it.
A team that didn’t even exist five years ago were heading to France for the World Cup finals. They became the first women’s team from the Caribbean to make it to the World Cup and hopefully this summer they can inspire a whole new generation of girls.
This unbridled joy and pride has been clouded with the uncertainty of the future of women’s football in Jamaica. The Football Federation have offered no assurances despite the on the field success. Having pulled the funding once in 2016, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could do so again.
With this tournament, Cedella Marley has achieved one goal, but the long-term sustainability of the Jamaican football will rely on much more than one inspirational woman.