Date first published: 9 June 2019
FLORIDA: 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 football coach, and it asked parents to consider donating money to resurrect Jamaica’s women’s football 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 football team hadn’t existed for much of the previous four years because the country’s football 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 football 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 football 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 football 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.
“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 football ball. Once she got to grade school, she began playing football 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 football is for men?'”
She was unfazed. The only thing Khadija loved as much as football 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 football 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 football 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 football? 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 football. 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 football coach, to lead the re-formed team.
There was nothing in the Jamaican football federation budget for a women’s-team head coach, of course. That meant Menzies – who runs a very successful youth football 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.