Jamaica's path to the World Cup includes help from a Marley
A few years ago, Jamaica didn't even have a women's national team. The squad was essentially disbanded after failing to make the field for the 2008 Olympics.
Enter Jamaican royalty — or as close as it gets.
Cedella Marley, daughter of reggae legend Bob Marley, made resurrecting the team a personal cause, and now Jamaica is headed to the Women's World Cup for the first time.
The Reggae Girlz, as they're known, are the first Caribbean team to make the field for soccer's premier tournament, which opens June 7 in France.
"We're the Cinderella," coach Hue Menzies said. "We have a chance to make our nation proud. The biggest thing for us now is to focus on our commitment and focus on the task."
Jamaica, No. 53 in the latest FIFA world rankings, opens the tournament on June 9 against 10th-ranked Brazil. The group also includes No. 6 Australia and No. 15 Italy.
The Reggae Girlz aren't happy just to have been included in the daunting group.
"Underdog role or not, I feel we are very capable of getting out of the group," said forward Olufolasade Adamolekun, who goes by Sade and is headed to USC in the fall. "With all the support that we have and what we have been able to conquer, we are very confident as we take this huge step."
But it's about way more than just goals and wins for Jamaica. The Reggae Girlz want to change the perception of the women's game in a nation that traditionally hasn't valued it. Like many teams in the region, Jamaica's women have struggled for basic support, even equipment. There's been little or no compensation for players.
"It's actually a cause," Menzies said. "We want to make an impact socially."
The Jamaican women's national team first surfaced in 1991 for an international friendly against Haiti. Its best tournament finish before World Cup qualifying last year was fourth at the 2006 CONCACAF Gold Cup competition.
But after failing to make the field for either the 2007 World Cup or the 2008 Olympics, the team went dormant as the federation cut funding. Cedella Marley got wind of an effort to revive the team in 2014 and became its ambassador, a role she still holds.
Jamaica captured the imagination of fans last fall at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Texas with a surprising — and spirited — third-place finish behind the United States and Canada to earn the automatic bid for France. The tournament put a spotlight on Jamaica forward Khadija "Bunny" Shaw, who was runner-up to U.S. forward Alex Morgan for the CONCACAF 2018 Player of the Year award.
Then came another challenge: raising enough money to properly train and travel.
The team has been tireless in drumming up support, soliciting sponsors and holding fundraisers. There was a charity concert in Kingston in December, then a holiday giving campaign. As recently as last week, the team played an exhibition game in Miramar, Florida, where there is a vibrant Jamaican community. It served as both training and a fundraiser.
The efforts have paid off: The Reggae Girlz scored a new sponsorship in February with Wisynco, a Jamaican beverage company, and paint Company Sherwin-Williams pitched in $500,000 last month. Caribbean Airlines became the team's official airline in December.
And, of course, there's the backing of the Bob Marley Foundation, as well as the team's biggest cheerleader, Cedella.
Menzies, who was a volunteer coach for the team until recently because the federation didn't have the money to pay him, laughed when it was suggested that the Reggae Girlz were the "Cool Runnings" of soccer, referencing the 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsled team. To Menzies, it's bigger than that.
"It's been a movie for us ever since Cedella sat down with me four years ago, and said, 'Hey, Hue, I want you to make a change for us,'" Menzies said.
The Reggae Girlz already are overseas preparing for the World Cup. On Tuesday, Jamaica played its first exhibition against a European team, falling 3-2 to Scotland in Glasgow. Shaw, a former standout at Tennessee, scored both of Jamaica's goals.
The challenges the Reggae Girlz have faced before even landing on French soil have made them a team in the truest sense of the word, players said.
"Having these girls to represent Jamaica it couldn't have been a better group of people. Individuals that come together and want to do the same thing — that are driven, that are passionate, that work hard," said defender Lauren Silver, who played at Florida. "This is a great group of women to represent this team at this time."