The story is so cinematic, it’s begging to be made into a Hollywood movie: In 2008, after the Jamaican women’s national football team — best known as the Reggae Girlz — failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, it was disbanded by the Jamaican Football Federation. Then, in 2014, Cedella Marley, the daughter of Jamaican music legend Bob Marley, found out about the team’s struggles, and stepped in to save the day.
She provided enough money and notoriety for the team to start competing again, and last year, Jamaica became the first Caribbean team to qualify for the Women’s Word Cup, when it took Panama to penalty kicks and defeated them in the third-place match at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship.
The Reggae Girlz — who lost 3-0 to Brazil on Sunday, and will face Italy on Friday and Australia next Tuesday — are now officially a part of soccer history.
But as monumental as this moment is for the team, and for women’s football in the Caribbean, the players are still dealing with disrespect from their federation, sexism from their compatriots, and uncertainty when it comes to the future of their team and their sport.
“If this was track and field it would be different. In general, a lot of people don’t believe women should be playing football. That’s still the mentality,” Nicole McClure, a goalkeeper for the Reggae Girlz, told ThinkProgress in a phone call from France.
This is where the Reggae Girlz Foundation comes in. While Marley is undoubtedly the team’s most important benefactor and champion, the Reggae Girlz Foundation (RGF) is looking to create a sustainable infrastructure for women’s football in Jamaica going forward, and to serve as a tool to hold the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) accountable.
“It doesn’t stop at the World Cup,” said Michelle Adamolekun, the founder and president of the RGF. “There is a propensity with these kind of tournaments to raise our heads when the tournament comes up, but what we want to ensure is that we don’t stop. We have to create sustainability.”
Adamolekun, who was born in Jamaica but moved to the United States when she was 11, first became aware of the Jamaican women’s national team a couple of years ago, when its coach recruited her 16-year-old daughter Sade to play on its Under-20 team. Adamolekun soon learned that the Jamaican team did not hold regular camps in the lead-up to big tournaments, and the coaches for the women’s team were working for free. She was horrified.
“There are so many girls down there who have the talent but don’t have the means. The barriers, the resource gaps, that was something that tugged at my heartstrings,” Adamolekun said.
She’s not one to complain without coming up with a solution, so she came up with the idea of starting a foundation to help fund the women’s team, and brought it to coaches and other parents. She wasn’t met with a lot of enthusiasm.
“They said, ‘That would be great, but it hasn’t worked when it was tried before,’” Adamolekun recalled. “I said, ‘You haven’t met me.’”
Adamolekun, who works in human resources, joined with some of the other parents and started the non-profit Reggae Girlz Foundation, in January of 2018. At the time, they all had other full-time jobs, and as a result they were in the process of slowly getting together the proper certifications and developing their organizational strategies when — in improbable fashion — the women’s team qualified for the World Cup that fall.
“The coaches said, ‘We need you to hurry up!” she said.
Over the past few months, the RGF has held a fundraiser which raised nearly $50,000 for the team, established a board of directors, launched incredibly active social media platforms, designed merchandise, and partnered with Jamaicans on the island and from around the Jamaican diaspora to raise awareness of the Reggae Girlz, enlisting support wherever it could be found every step of the way.
Now, the foundation has four goals, with a mind toward shaping a future for the team: Create awareness around inequities in women’s football in Jamaica; establish a residency program in Jamaica, similar to the IMG Academy in Florida; form a sustainable women’s professional league in Jamaica; and provide additional funding for the youth and developmental programs on the national level.
“I believe a vision without resources is a hallucination,” Adamolekun said. “Our goal is to compete for a World Cup every four years.”
Of course, the RGF is not taking over women’s football in Jamaica. The JFF still runs that particular show. And there has been no small amount of tension simmering between the JFF and the Reggae Girlz in the lead-up to this World Cup — which makes sense, considering just five years ago, the federation had completely abandoned the women’s team.
In the lead-up to France, Michael Ricketts, the president of the JFF, told the New York Times that the federation had spent nearly $4 million on the women’s team since World Cup qualifying began, a figure that coaches and players are incredibly skeptical about. Then, Dalton Wint, the general secretary of the JFF, made waves when he talked to ESPN about the Reggae Girlz and said, “They are pioneers now. And they will suffer from it.”
McClure said that players were incredibly taken aback by that comment.
“The president apologized to us, even though an apology is not going to save anything. For the secretary general to say that, it was unexpected,” McClure said. “I was really confused, but we’ve moved on. What’s behind us is behind.”
Even the challenge of taking the team overseas to the World Cup proved to be rocky. Late last month, after spending a few days in Miramar, Florida, holding fundraisers and playing a friendly, the team was scheduled to head to Scotland to play its final tune-up match. But the JFF turned the trip into a transportation nightmare — the right visas weren’t acquired, the players were split up among multiple planes, a connecting flight involved two different London airports, and at the end of the day, many players had to spend most of their time in Scotland without their luggage, which amid all the confusion had gotten lost along the way.
Situations like this are par for the course. At this point, McClure says that she and her teammates expect the scheduling to be unpredictable and the travel arrangements to be miserable.
“I can’t even tell you the amount of crazy things happened, but it’s wild. What people read in the papers and stuff, there’s more, but that’s just how things are,” McClure said. “It boils down to ignorance.”
But the Reggae Girlz Foundation is hesitant to be too critical of the JFF, who they see as a partner in this fight.
“If we continue to focus on the problems, we won’t make any progress,” Adamolekun said. “What we don’t want to do is to constantly hold back because we don’t trust.”
Adamolekun insists that every dime the RGF gives to the JFF has to go to women’s football, and the JFF has to provide receipts and proof showing that the money was spent for the exact purpose for which it was earmarked. This isn’t money from FIFA, which federations can pretty much use as they choose. A level of accountability has been insisted upon.
“We can’t give up, we have to create the transparency. It paralyzes you if you focus only on the barriers,” she said.
It’s a long road ahead for the Reggae Girlz, both inside and outside of this World Cup, and the reality is, there might not be a fairytale ending in France. The team has a star forward in Khadija “Bunny” Shaw and a 19-year-old stand-out goalkeeper in Sydney Schneider, but Jamaica is in the one of the toughest groups in the draw, and is highly unlikely to advance past the group stage. But that won’t lessen the significance of their historic feat.
“This is the first Caribbean team to qualify for a World Cup, and it’s so important for young girls in Jamaica to see women who look like them doing these things. It’s important because that creates the belief,” said Adamolekun, whose daughter Sade, now 18, made the final roster.
“It is tangible now for these young girls.”
McClure agrees. While she does still get frustrated by the sexism and the lack of support from the federation, she knows that things are getting better, thanks to the persistence and passion of the Reggae Girlz.
“I have received a ton of positive feedback from the public supporting us,” she said. “We hope we’re changing the culture with our success.”