Saturday 19 October 2019

Cedella Marley's money helped propel Reggae Girlz to their first World Cup

Cadella Marley. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Cadella Marley. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tom Cary

Growing up as a young girl in Kingston, Jamaica, Cedella Marley would finish school and head home to 56 Hope Road where her father lived and had his recording studio. Invariably she would get back to find him playing football in the walled courtyard.

Bob Marley was, famously, a huge fan of the game, playing with the Wailers in public parks all over the world while they were on tour, and "all day every day" when back in Kingston.

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"I swear if daddy hadn't been able to play guitar, or couldn't sing, he would have tried to be a striker, or a midfielder," Marley says, laughing. "He was a tiny person. But he was pretty quick. He absolutely loved football."

Cedella's younger brothers, Ziggy and Stephen, would often join in those kickabouts. But Cedella never got involved. "Nope," she says. "My job was to answer the phone. I worked in the record shop that was in Hope Road at the time. I was always more interested in the business side anyway. How much was a 45 [rpm record]? How much was an LP?"

Marley pauses for a moment. "I think daddy really enjoyed seeing me behind the desk," she adds. "Trying to be in charge of something I didn't know I would eventually be in charge of ... It worked out I guess."

It certainly did. Marley, now 51, has gone on to become a successful singer, dancer, designer, actress, and entrepreneur in her own right, running Tuff Gong, the record label her father started, as well as the Bob Marley Foundation, all from her home in Miami, from where she is speaking for this interview.

It is as the saviour of the Jamaica women's football team, though, the so-called Reggae Girlz, that Marley has been making headlines recently.

And with good reason. When Jamaica face Brazil this afternoon for their first World Cup fixture, not only will they be making history by becoming the first Caribbean side to play in a Fifa Women's World Cup, it will be the culmination of an incredible journey in which the Reggae Girlz were jettisoned by their own federation before being rescued by the daughter of Jamaica's most famous son.

"I didn't even know we had a women's team in Jamaica," Marley admits. "And I love football. I mean, before I knew there was a Reggae Girlz team I supported the Reggae Boyz. And I still do with all of my heart. But I just didn't know.

"My son Skip just came home from school one day with a flier in his rucksack. And it was an appeal to support the Reggae Girlz. I started making calls the next morning to the federation, just asking what this was about. And when they started to talk to me I realised it was a bigger problem than just donating $10 or $15."

What Marley found was that the team had been disbanded in 2006 and basically left to rot by the Jamaica federation.

"It wasn't because they weren't good," she hastens to add. "It was because they had no funds. For the boys yes but not for the girls."

Marley was aghast. The Reggae Girlz were doing their own laundry, and lacking even basic necessities. "They didn't have the right sports bras, the right nutrition. I was being told to send down granola bars. It wasn't fun. I got angrier and angrier."

She will not say how much she ploughed in, but admits her involvement came at significant personal cost. "All I can say is in 2014 I told one of my kids, 'I know you really want to go to college but...'" She laughs grimly at the memory.

"Yeah, it took that amount of money from me personally to get us through. I think at that time in 2014 it was the Concacaf rounds.

"But what was good was that me and my team travelled with the girls during that [campaign], so I was able to see for myself what the situation really was.

"And that's when I really knew what I had to do. Because I never want to see a young girl who really wants to achieve her dream and just because of her gender she's told, 'No thanks. Find something else to do'. That didn't sit well with me."

It was a constant struggle. Even when the players were looked after there were major issues to deal with.

Khadija Shaw, the Reggae Girlz star player, who scored twice in their final warm-up game at Hampden Park last week and has better than a goal-a-game ratio for her country, was one of many helped into an American college.

While she was away plundering goals for the University of Tennessee 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 was electrocuted when he chased a football into the bushes and stumbled on to an exposed wire. Marley says she is not going anywhere, "not until the team is commercially sustainable" at any rate. She hopes the buzz around the Reggae Girlz will bring sponsors out of the woodwork, as it did for the Reggae Boyz when they qualified for France 1998. But she clearly has no faith that the federation will capitalise.

"Maybe they're just not as aggressive as I am," she says. "They're all men. In suits too. I mean, who wears a suit to a football match?"

She laughs. The Reggae Girlz may be the lowest ranked team in the tournament. They may not have the resources of their Group C opponents Brazil, Italy and Australia.

But, she says, they have heart.

"It's a miracle that we're here at all," she says. "And if we start to win, the party back home. Mind you, you drop a rice grain in Jamaica and tell us it's a party and we're going to party! But I believe we're capable of anything."

Even winning the tournament? "Anything," she repeats firmly before hanging up with a parting message: "One love."

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