Jun 4, 2019
Sam BordenESPN global sports correspondent
- Sam Borden is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
A piece of paper in the backpack of Bob Marley’s grandson.
See, that’s how this all began. One afternoon in 2014, Cedella Marley, Bob’s eldest daughter with his wife Rita, was handed a flier by her son, Skip, after he came home from school. The flier was from Skip’s soccer coach, and it asked parents to consider donating money to resurrect Jamaica’s women’s soccer team.
Cedella was startled. She lives outside Miami but is still royalty in Jamaica, leading Tuff Gong, the record label her father started, as well as the foundation named for him. She made some calls. Turned out, the women’s soccer team hadn’t existed for much of the previous four years because the country’s soccer federation cut the funding.
There were still girls youth teams, sure, but no senior national team that could try to represent the country at the Olympics or the Women’s World Cup.
Cedella bristled. Was it a soccer thing? she asked. Nope. The men’s team, known as the Reggae Boyz, had its funding fully intact.
“People were saying no to [the women], and it was for no reason,” Cedella says now. “The more I got involved, the angrier I got.”
Cedella thought about it. And made some more phone calls about it. And then decided to fix it, thrusting herself and a few dozen determined players on a journey that involved raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, challenging stifling gender norms, surviving tense elimination games and persisting despite a haunting feeling that their dreams might die anyway.
“They are pioneers now,” Dalton Wint, general secretary of the Jamaica Football Federation, says of the women’s team. He shrugs. “And they will suffer from it.”
In conversation, Cedella, now 51, laughs easily, sauntering into the backyard of her South Florida mansion with an iPad full of notes and canned sound bites that she never consults. Instead, she riffs on travel, food and music as we sit under her gazebo.
Asked if she was at all surprised to hear about the decision to get rid of the women’s team, Cedella snorts. “Coming from Jamaica? Not really.” She laughs. “I think they would like to see girls in bathing suits and tennis skirts versus cleats and soccer gear.”
She isn’t exaggerating. Sashana Campbell, a 28-year-old midfielder with the Reggae Girlz for the past five years, says she grew up playing with boys because there weren’t any high-level, organized opportunities for girls. She worried about getting too good “because you think, at some point, they’re just not going to allow you to play.”
This reality, Cedella says, is why the revival of the Reggae Girlz has been a multi-stage process. In spring 2014, with qualifying for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada underway, the initial goal was to simply exist. At the time, the Jamaican team wasn’t even part of FIFA’s rankings because it hadn’t played a real game in years. Cedella donated plenty of her own money but also tried to create a buzz around the team, largely by releasing a song, “Strike Hard,” featuring her and her brothers, Stephen and Damian. An accompanying Indie-gogo campaign gave the Reggae Girlz just enough money to re-form, though calling it a bare-bones operation would be kind.
The players did their own laundry. They rode in rickety vans. They practiced for a day or two on one weekend, then broke for a few days so many of the players could work at their jobs before regrouping the next weekend. Even the common practice of exchanging jerseys after international matches had to be abandoned.
“People would be like, ‘Can I get a jersey?’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t even have one for myself!'” Campbell says. “We had to give everything back to the federation: training gear, jerseys, everything.”
Despite it all, the team didn’t play badly that summer. The Reggae Girlz dominated tiny Martinique 6-0 before losing a tight match to Costa Rica, and they even led Mexico in the qualifying tournament’s final group stage match before being eliminated in a 3-1 defeat. The next summer, in 2015, the team tried and failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It didn’t matter; after all, the Reggae Girlz had never made it to the World Cup or the Olympics in their history. They were just glad to be competing. It felt like something had changed, Cedella thought. It felt like progress.
It wasn’t. In 2016, the Jamaican federation disbanded the team again.
Khadija Shaw grew up praying for rain. She acknowledges this was a strange wish, particularly for a kid in the gritty St. John’s Road community of Spanish Bay. But rain meant the soccer game her brothers and the other neighborhood kids played every day wouldn’t be held at the field — too sloppy — and would instead take place in the street. Since Khadija’s mother had told her she wasn’t allowed to play herself, Khadija prayed for rain so she could watch the sport she adored from her front steps instead of having to stare, grimly, as the boys took their ball and trooped off toward the field.
For more on the U.S. and global stars of the upcoming 2019 Women’s World Cup, check out the June issue of ESPN The Magazine.
* Meet the 23 members of the USWNT 2019 World Cup roster
* Get ready, world: Here comes the marvelous Mal Pugh
* Julie Ertz is the ass kicker of the U.S. women’s national team
* More Women’s World Cup coverage
“Is that crazy?” she says in Kingston one day this spring. “Maybe. But that’s how much I wanted to be close to the game.”
Eventually, she persuaded one of her brothers, Kentardo, to teach her to juggle a soccer ball. Once she got to grade school, she began playing soccer with the boys and dominating, telling her mom her clothes were so filthy because she fell in the dirt on the way home. One day, a neighbor from a few blocks over stopped her with a pointed question as she came home from school: “This guy,” she says, rolling her eyes, “he was like, ‘Do you know soccer is for men?'”
She was unfazed. The only thing Khadija loved as much as soccer was carrots, which, in combination with a formidable set of front teeth, earned her the nickname Bunny. As she grew to an imposing 5-foot-11, it became clear she had an innate talent for scoring. She scored 128 goals in four years of high school and, as a 14-year-old in 2011, played for Jamaica’s under-15, under-17 and under-20 women’s teams.
As with other talented Jamaican women of her generation, there was no senior team for Bunny to dream about at that time, but she still believed soccer could be her life. Recruited by American universities, she played two years at a junior college before joining the University of Tennessee in 2017. As she flourished in the SEC, her family was being devastated back home.
During her time away, three of her seven brothers were killed by gang-related gun violence; another brother died in a car accident. One of her nephews was shot and killed, and another died after being electrocuted when he chased a soccer ball into the bushes and stumbled onto an exposed wire. “He was barefoot because that’s how we play in Jamaica,” Bunny says.
It felt like every time she spoke to her family there was another tragedy, another grief endured without her. “What am I doing here?” she asked herself, as she considered packing up and returning to Kingston.
Her dad wanted her to stay. Her mom too. And the more she thought about all that had happened, the more she kept repeating to herself the only thing that made her feel better: “Would it help me if I was sad? Would it help me if I didn’t play soccer? Would it help me if I didn’t do the thing I love?”
Her life was complicated, but the answer wasn’t. In 2018, during her senior season at Tennessee, she scored 13 goals in 15 games and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year. That year coincided with a revival of the Reggae Girlz, who identified Bunny as a star they could build around. She began to think of the possibility of a homecoming on her own terms.
When the federation defunded the team a second time in 2016, Cedella — unbowed — simply redoubled her efforts, pushing for a complete culture change within Jamaican women’s soccer. First, she persuaded Alessandra Lo Savio, a co-founder of the Alacran Foundation, which does arts philanthropy work in Jamaica and elsewhere, to become a major contributor. Then she identified Hue Menzies, who gave up a career in corporate finance to become a full-time soccer coach, to lead the re-formed team.
There was nothing in the Jamaican soccer federation budget for a women’s-team head coach, of course. That meant Menzies — who runs a very successful youth soccer club near Orlando — would have to be a volunteer. He didn’t hesitate.
“The Marleys, when they pick something, it’s supposed to work,” Menzies says. He is trying his best, over lunch, to explain why he would take a job that pays no money to coach a team that has no money. With a syrupy speech pattern and a lolling shuffle of a walk, Menzies seems perpetually unbothered. “That’s just our culture,” he says finally. “If the Marleys are doing something, it’s real.”
With Menzies on board, Cedella wanted the spotlight to shift to players like Bunny and Campbell and Konya Plummer and a young star-in-the-making, Jody Brown, who was barely old enough to drive but scored goals in bunches. Unlike the 2014 reboot, when she traveled to most of the team’s games and thought it was important to be visible, Cedella stepped back.
The players understood Cedella’s retreat — she wanted to show that the Reggae Girlz could stand on their own without the proximity of the Marley name, that the team could be a self-sustaining program, not a charity case — but a tradition was born: After every game, the team FaceTimed its benefactor from the locker room to tell her about what happened.
There was plenty to tell. In their first qualifiers last spring, staged in Haiti and against teams from the Caribbean region, the Reggae Girlz had a clear talent advantage but were (literally) weakened by a lack of food. The spreads provided to the team at the hotel were sparse and largely inedible. Several players came down with food poisoning symptoms almost immediately. The players and staff complained, asking for different food, but were told this was all that was available. They weren’t so sure.
“They just kept giving us like a rice thing with some sort of cheese layer on top that you couldn’t see what was underneath,” recalls Dominique Bond-Flasza, a Jamaican defender. “It felt like it was on purpose. We would ask for something else, but there was nothing. We even stopped drinking the water they gave us.”
Campbell shudders at the memory. “It was horrendous.”
“I think I ate some bread,” Bunny says. “Maybe.”
Hungry and underhydrated, Bunny still scored eight goals in three games to push Jamaica to the next round and added eight more in the four matches of the second round to send Jamaica to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship.
Those games were in Texas against top-tier teams, including the United States, Canada and Costa Rica. With Bunny still scoring at her regular clip and a breakout performance from Brown (who scored four goals of her own), Jamaica beat Costa Rica and Cuba before a loss to the United States set up a winner-take-all game against Panama. Victory meant qualification for this summer’s World Cup in France. The game was played just north of Dallas on a chilly night last October. Cedella resisted the urge to go to Texas for the match and ended up not watching most of it, choosing instead to calm her nerves by doing yoga and meditation in the garage.
The contest was wrenching. Jamaica led in regulation — Bunny scored, naturally — only to give up a late goal that sent the match to extra time. The Reggae Girlz scored again, but Panama tied it at 2 only minutes before the final whistle. There would be a shootout.
That was when Cedella came in from her garage. She watched as substitute goalkeeper Nicole McClure made two critical saves to set up Bond-Flasza for the potential game-winning kick. When the ball rippled the net, Cedella, in her own words, “hit the floor.” On the pitch, Bunny took a moment to look around — to see what unbridled joy looks like — before jumping into the dog pile.
To celebrate, the Reggae Girlz feasted on cookies at the hotel that night — “They were huge,” Bond-Flasza says — while in Florida, Cedella’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Grinning widely at the memory, Cedella says, “It was like an out-of-body experience.”
It is a steamy February morning in Kingston, and Dalton Wint, sitting uncomfortably behind his desk, delivers the buzzkill. “I might not be a very popular guy at this time,” the federation’s second-ranked executive says. “But remember, after this euphoria wears off, the real deal continues.”
Ask anyone connected to the Reggae Girlz what they want and the answer is always the same: sustainability. “We want to know this can happen again,” Cedella says. And she has real concerns that it can’t.
At the Reggae Girlz’s training camp this spring, the mood of elation at being the first women’s team from Jamaica and the Caribbean to qualify for the World Cup is tempered by a fair bit of wariness — particularly when it comes to the federation.
Bunny shakes her head when she talks about the JFF: “All they do is have a bunch of promises that will never be fulfilled.”
The sentiment is understandable. The JFF — which is ostensibly in place in part to support the Reggae Girlz — has disbanded the team twice. And even with the boost that comes with reaching the sport’s biggest stage, the federation has made no guarantees about the viability of the program going forward. “That’s what we want,” Wint says. “But it’s money that makes the mare get up.”
Wint then lists some of the expenses related to running the team: $200,000 to run a single training camp that includes an exhibition match, $60,000 for flights to a road game. “It’s crazy money,” he says.
No one disputes this. International soccer is expensive. The problem is that the Reggae Girlz don’t understand why their program, which just qualified for a World Cup, is the one at risk while the Reggae Boyz — who have qualified for just one World Cup of their own, back in 1998 — are immune.
“Tradition,” Wint says when pressed on why the Reggae Boyz have exactly the guarantee that the women’s team craves. “We’re used to the men, and so that kind of support has been a little easier and forthcoming.”
He continues, “The truth of the matter is, I blame some of the women [in Jamaica] because they are not coming to the games, they are not supporting the way they should.” He believes a “societal issue” remains in Jamaica when it comes to women’s soccer because “some people do not yet even approve of women playing football.”
He says that what the Reggae Girlz have done “will change a lot of perspectives” but that it takes time for society to catch up.
For now, he says, the Reggae Boyz generate income — the men’s team might receive an appearance fee of more than $100,000 to play a game in another country, for example — that the women can’t match. The men’s team also draws bigger crowds because the players are professionals with a greater degree of fame.
For the Reggae Girlz, this sounds like goalposts moving. Initially, their survival was largely about results — why pay for a senior women’s team that isn’t competitive? Now the team clearly is competitive, yet that hasn’t translated into any more security.
Bunny talks ruefully about how the JFF ran training camps for the Reggae Boyz last year in the run-up to the World Cup in Russia even though the men had failed to qualify for the tournament. “The boys were in camp and we weren’t,” she says. “We’re trying to qualify for the [Women’s] World Cup, right? And the boys missed it.” She waves her hand. “Stuff like that just gets us mad.”
There is always — always, always, always, the players say — a lingering doubt. What if they don’t make it out of the group stage in France? What if they don’t win a game? “Knowing the JFF,” Campbell says, “I just hope they don’t turn their backs.”
That is why, with their unease lingering, the players continue to look to Cedella as the one they can count on. It’s also why Cedella, for all the satisfaction she’ll feel this summer in France, knows the reality: Even after the happily-ever-after ending against Panama, the job isn’t close to done yet.
“It’s a choice that the girls have made to play,” Cedella says, “and we should give them an even field to go out and kick the ball.”
She smiles. “Football is freedom. That’s a quote from Bob Marley.”