Much like the lovable Jamaican bobsled team that captivated the world during the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Reggae Girlz are poised to become the feel-good story of the upcoming Women’s World Cup, which kicks off June 7 in Paris.
After being disbanded five years ago, the underfunded Jamaican women’s national soccer team — with a volunteer coach and the generosity of reggae king Bob Marley’s daughter — became the first Caribbean team to qualify for the women’s World Cup.
Unlike the stars of the U.S. women’s national team, Jamaican players aren’t featured in a lucrative Nike “Dream With Us” campaign. Their faces are not plastered on Los Angeles billboards or the sides of skyscrapers and subway station pillars in New York City. Their World Cup send-off tour was not televised on ESPN.
Instead, their improbable journey to the World Cup was celebrated Thursday night at the Ansin Sports Complex in Miramar, where a crowd of 5,000 fans decked in yellow and green paid $10 to $50 to watch the Reggae Girlz beat local team FC Surge 2-1 before heading to Scotland for a final World Cup tune-up match.
The week-long sendoff festivities, organized by the South Florida-based Reggae Girlz Foundation, included a fundraiser at the home of Jamaican Consul General Oliver Mair.
“For the world to see this small island do such big things makes us very proud in the City of Miramar — the fifth-largest Jamaican diaspora in U.S.,” said Miramar Vice-Mayor Alexandra Davis. “It was fitting for us to have them here. One of our goals was to ensure that when they go to France, they will have all the resources they need to compete with world-class, first-world countries that have a lot more resources than our small island of Jamaica. The least we can do is support them on their journey.”
Five years ago, a World Cup berth seemed impossible.
The Jamaican Football Federation drastically cut funding for women’s soccer in 2008; and by 2014, the fledgling women’s league and senior team were disbanded. Tired of seeing athletic young women ignored, Cedella Marley, who lives in South Florida, made it her personal mission to resurrect the women’s national team. She donated money from the Bob Marley Foundation and led an international fundraising drive.
The Alacran Foundation soon jumped on board, as did a handful of corporate sponsors. Marley also convinced Hue Menzies to coach the team, which he did for free until he signed a contract this year. Menzies is based in the Orlando area and runs the Florida Kraze Krush soccer club. He and assistant coaches Lorne Donaldson, Andrew Price and Hubert Busby Jr. scoured college campuses, U.S. pro teams and overseas clubs for Jamaican players.
They found a group good enough to earn a World Cup berth by beating Panama in a penalty kick shootout.
The 23-player World Cup roster includes former University of Tennessee star Khadiya “Bunny” Shaw and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s cousin, Chanel Hudson-Marks. Florida is well represented. Midfielder Lauren Silver is a Miami native who played at Plantation American Heritage High and University of Florida. Forward Ashleigh Shim played at Florida International University. Midfielder Marlo Sweatman and forward Cheyna Matthews (wife of NFL wide receiver Jordan Matthews) played at Florida State. Defender Konya Plummer played at University of Central Florida and goalkeeper Nicole McClure and forward Trudi Carter played at University of South Florida
Among the other locals in training camp was 33-year-old Fort Lauderdale native Christina Chang, who played at Florida Atlantic University and works as an air traffic controller at Miami International Airport.
“We think we’re the most athletic team in the World Cup, so we have a chance,” said Menzies, whose team will face Italy, Brazil and Australia in the first round. “We also have a very intelligent team with college educated women putting their careers on hold. But the World Cup is just another step in the journey in what we’re doing.
“This is about overcoming adversity and changing the way people look at women’s soccer in Jamaica. Kudos to the federation. For a Caribbean country to sign a women’s coach to a full-time contract is unheard of. For the region, it’s massive. Every little kid now can touch and feel somebody in the World Cup, not just watching another country play soccer. We are stepping over those boundaries right now. We hope other Caribbean countries like Trinidad and Guyana are inspired to do what we’ve done.”
Michael Ricketts, president of the JFF, said, “We are still pinching ourselves, saying, `Yes, Jamaica is in the World Cup.” He said this achievement means more to him personally than when the Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 World Cup.
“When this administration took office, women’s football was never given the kind of support it deserved,” he said. “There was no league. There was a U15 tournament that was aborted. We were given an inspiration to take a particular path, and that’s exactly what we did. We would not have been here without Coach Menzies and his staff. They weren’t just coaches. They were mentors and fathers to these women.”
The players dance to reggae music during warmups, and love to laugh, but they are taking their World Cup task seriously.
“I haven’t had many moments where I just pause and think, `Hey, look what we just did.’ But whenever I do, I’m overwhelmed by the honor and the pride of creating this historic wave,” said midfielder Chinyelu Asher, who played at Purdue and Louisville and now plays in the Norwegian league. “I don’t even think right now I can understand the ripple effects that come from what we did, but it’s a huge honor to be a role model and create a path for people for the next generation. Going to Kingston and seeing the younger girls, looking up and saying `We want to be like the Reggae Girlz.’’’
Center back Allyson Swaby, who plays for AS Roma in Italy, and her younger sister, Rutgers midfielder Chantel, both made the team.
“It means a lot to put our names in this history book,” Allyson Swaby said. “When you’re going through the process, you’re just playing and not thinking about making history. But it’s hit me now. It’s become real. Our culture is deep. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Jamaica or the U.S., if you have Jamaican blood, the bond is tight. We are doing this for all the young girls in Jamaica.”
Despite their lack of experience and funding, the Reggae Girlz believe they have the talent and spirit to shock the world.
“When people interview us, they just want to talk about music and the Marleys, but that’s good because it means we’re not dealing with a lot of outside pressure. We can be a lot more relaxed. When you watch us play, it’s very stylistic and fun and that’s a reflection of us being in the underdog role. We’ll relish that. But we’re going to compete, and we believe we can play with anyone.”
2019 WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
When: June 7-July 7
TV: FOX, FS1, Telemundo
Defending Champion: United States
Jamaica’s games: June 9 vs. Brazil, June 14 vs Italy, June 18 vs. Australia.