Jamaica’s Women’s Soccer Team Showed How Success Doesn’t Have to Mean Victory on the Field
Tears rolled down the cheeks of 20 of the most talented soccer players in the western hemisphere as they sat in a Washington, D.C., hotel room late on a cold, rainy night in October 2014. The Jamaican national women’s football team, or the Reggae Girlz, as they are sometimes known, had lost to Mexico earlier in the day. The defeat meant the end of the team’s run at qualifying for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, now under way in Canada.
“We understand if you don’t want to support us anymore.” Shakira Duncan, one of the captains of the team, said through sobs. “We know we’ve disappointed you.”
Her words were directed at Cedella Marley, the daughter of Bob Marley, the most famous Jamaican who ever lived and an avid soccer player. Marley explained that Duncan and her teammates did not disappoint; they inspired. The absolute last thing the Reggae Girlz supporter and team ambassador would do was abandon them after they had made it so far—just two wins short of qualifying, something no Caribbean team had ever done. Marley told the team she was more determined than ever to help them now that they had shown what a small country’s women athletes can achieve if given the resources.
Though the Women’s World Cup expanded this year from 16 to 24 teams, that didn’t make it any easier for the 171 active women’s national teams that, according to FIFA’s 2013 Women’s Survey, face similar funding and development challenges. In the region in which Jamaica plays, the Confederation of North American, Central American, and Caribbean Associations of Football, supporters such as Marley play a bigger role than government in funding women’s national football programs—24 percent, compared with 9 percent. A lack of dedicated staff also hampers development of women’s national teams in developing nations, with an average of fewer than five in the Caribbean (the national teams of the U.S. and Canada have more than 20 staff members, but no regional confederation has more than 20 percent of its staff dedicated to the women’s game). Jamaica has no equivalent of Title IX, the section of U.S. law mandating equal resources be given to men’s and women’s sports in schools, and no program equivalents to the American Youth Soccer Association or YMCA, which are instrumental in developing a pipeline of youth players for national and professional teams.
Six months before the Reggae Girlz lost to Mexico, Marley was at her son’s school in Miami when someone handed her a flyer for a fund-raiser aimed at resurrecting the Jamaican women’s football team. The Reggae Girlz had been disbanded in 2008, but the Jamaican Football Federation was gathering the most talented senior and junior girls together to try to make a run at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. With the players spread around the globe, playing college soccer in the U.S. and in pro leagues in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Kazakhstan, funding and lack of time were major challenges.
Cedella reached out to the JFF to say she wanted to support the effort. She would lend not only her family name but would also raise awareness for the team through the media—the Marley family and their brands have 14 social media platforms with more than 80 million followers—and leverage the Marley family group of businesses and its partners, from Tuff Gong Records to audio systems outfitter House of Marley, to offer fund-raising support and perhaps spark interest among potential Jamaican sponsors for the team.
“The Reggae Girlz have had difficulty getting support,” Marley says. “Traditionally people see soccer as a men’s sport, and sponsors don’t think girls should play football. I happen to have a different opinion.”
While she was assembling supporters, the Reggae Girlz headed back to Jamaica and in April began training together for the first time in six years. Barely 60 days later, they blasted through the Caribbean football qualifier rounds, winning 7–0 and 14–0 to head to the Caribbean Cup in August. There, they placed second to Trinidad & Tobago. Cedella (and sometimes her brother Rohan) attended the games, giving the players pregame pep talks and celebrating victories on the field by singing “One Love,” their arms wrapped around one another in a circle. The Reggae Girlz gained close to 60,000 followers on Facebook.
With each advance, however, came the need to raise more money. The only certainty was 15 percent of the $1 million Men’s World Cup fund that FIFA mandated every women’s football program receive. That was supposed to last a program four years. But air and ground transportation, meals, housing, and coaches just for a training camp come to about $30,000. The FIFA funds were not going to stretch as far as the CONCACAF finals.
Marley put together crowdfunding campaigns called “Are You a Reggae Girl?” on GoFundMe.com and Indiegogo.com, selling Reggae Girlz T-shirts and recording a Reggae Girlz song called “Strike Hard” with her brothers Stephen and Damian. They raised more than $250,000 in a few months, enough to get the team to Washington.
Jamaica had moved up 40 spots in FIFA’s world rankings, from 75th to 34th, in just nine games. Nevertheless, the team knew it was going to be a tough run in Washington. They had been together for just six months. The first game, a 6–0 win over Martinique, gave them a boost of confidence. But then came contests against more developed programs; they lost to Costa Rica 2–1 and to Mexico 3–1. Both teams made it to the World Cup, along with the U.S. and Canada.
The Reggae Girlz are now training for the 2016 Olympics qualifiers. Training camps and tournaments in the coming months will require more funding. The JFF and Cedella Marley are committing to the overall development of women’s soccer in Jamaica, developing support for the under 17 and under 20 teams.
Alicia Wilson, a team captain who now coaches soccer at Navarro College in Texas, is confident the senior team can build on its success. “We have added some new faces with experience and drive, which is sure to help,” she says. “The reception in Jamaica now needs to get to another level.”