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Bob Marley instilled a love of soccer in his daughter, Cedella. Now she’s changing the lives of women and girls in Jamaica

<i>Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Jamaica's Khadija Shaw was one of Europe's most prolific strikers last season.
Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
Jamaica's Khadija Shaw was one of Europe's most prolific strikers last season.

By Matias Grez, CNN

(CNN) — Football has consumed much of Cedella Marley’s life. But perhaps that should not come as a surprise.

As the daughter of global reggae icon Bob Marley, who was a renowned lover of the beautiful game, Cedella was never far from a soccer ball growing up. Had he not been a musician, Cedella recalls her father telling her, he would have wanted to be a soccer player.

“Daddy played every day,” Marley told CNN Sport. “He would play anywhere he was: on the road, you’d find a field, you’d find a team.

“Sometimes, it would be the photographers who were out there, you know; sometimes, it would be the journalists and it would be the band against the journalists.

“I watched him growing up, I also watch my brothers, Ziggy and Steve. They played football growing up, too, and it was just always something that I loved. I love to kick a ball and was super competitive when my brothers would challenge me.”

Recalling advice given to her by Pelé, Cadella smiled broadly as she repeated the words the Brazilian all-time great told her: “The ball is round and always take the penalty.”

“So everything to me was a penalty,” Marley laughed. “I’d be like: ‘I’m just going for the goal,’ and that love is just something that is just in my DNA. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

‘Wait, Jamaica has a women’s football team?’

Though she has loved soccer for as long as she can remember, for many years, Marley’s involvement in the game didn’t extend beyond kickabouts with her father and brothers.

But that all changed in 2014 when one day her son came home from school and handed her a flier, saying that his soccer coach had asked him to deliver it to her.

I’m reading it … I’m like: ‘Wait, Jamaica has a women’s football team? Where did this come from?” she said.

Six years earlier, in 2008, underfunding had led to the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) disbanding the women’s national team program. The flier Marley’s son brought home was a fundraising request from the JFF to help restart the program. Marley got to work almost immediately, calling the federation the following morning to ask what it needed.

“The needs were many,” Marley said, repeating the sentence as if to emphasize how dire the situation was.

From travel and nutrition to accommodation and training camps, every area of the national team’s setup was in need of funding.

An accomplished musician and multiple Grammy award-winning artist with the band Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Marley put her considerable musical talents to work.

My family came together with me, [brothers] Damien and Steve and I, we recorded a song called ‘Strike Hard’ to raise funds,” she said.

Through a combination of the royalties earned from ‘Strike Hard,’ a GoFundMe page and by becoming an ambassador and sponsor of the women’s national team through the Bob Marley Foundation, Marley says they raised $300,000 in the first year.

The women’s team disbanded again in 2016, but Marley never wavered in her commitment to the program. In 2019, her efforts – and the work of countless others who were equally as dedicated to the cause – culminated in the women’s national team becoming the first Caribbean country to qualify for a Women’s World Cup.

Marley’s work has helped not only improve standards and conditions for players, but also helped shift the country’s attitude towards the women’s national team.

“These girls have been told for a long time that women in sports, especially football in Jamaica, it really wasn’t that important,” Marley said. “Like, it doesn’t matter. ‘You guys don’t make money. You don’t bring in the crowds. You don’t do this, you don’t do that.’

“Nobody wants to give us brand deals because [it’s] the female team and so it’s funny now to see how all of that has changed drastically, not just for our women, but around the world … and that makes me excited.”

‘Warrior mode’

Marley was speaking from Jamaica’s pre-World Cup training camp in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, organized by Ajax and Adidas. The players have had their every need catered for with the “amazing” facilities on offer, she says.

Boasting first-class training pitches, a gym, a swimming pool and a basketball court, the Friendship Sports Centre has “everything” the Jamaican players need to best prepare for the World Cup, Marley said.

“I remember back in the day when it just used to be like a dark room, you know, in a basement or something,” Marley recalled with a dry laugh.

“So it’s a big difference to see how they’re training now.”

Eleven of the players that went to the last World Cup are also included in Jamaica’s squad for Australia and New Zealand and that added experience means expectations are higher this time around.

At France 2019, Jamaica was drawn into a tough group featuring Italy, Australia and Brazil. The ‘Reggae Girlz’ lost all three matches but created more history by scoring the country’s first goal at a Women’s World Cup when Havana Solaun netted in the 4-1 defeat to Australia.

This year’s squad boasts a number of players plying their trade at the highest level around the world, headlined by Manchester City striker Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw, who scored an impressive 20 goals – to go with seven assists – during last season’s Women’s Super League campaign.

That Jamaica has so many talented players to call upon is thanks in part to former head coach Hue Menzies, who had the foresight to send the country’s brightest prospects to schools in the United States when the country’s women’s league was disbanded in 2015 and the national team lay dormant.

The individual and collective growth within the squad over the past four years has given Jamaica renewed confidence that it can improve on the performances from France 2019.

“We want to go out there and we want to win,” Marley said assuredly, with Jamaica this time being drawn against Brazil, France and Panama. Qualifying to the knockouts will be difficult, but the team made history in the opening match against France, winning a first ever point in the tournament after a heroic 0-0 draw.

“It’s just beautiful to watch the game and our girls. They’re hyper focused, that’s one thing I can tell you and they’re going in there in warrior mode.”

However, preparation for the tournament hasn’t all been plain sailing.

Last month, many of the first-team squad wrote an open letter to the JFF expressing their “utmost disappointment” in what they described as “subpar” conditions during their World Cup preparations.

The letter also alleges the JFF has failed to deliver on “contractually agreed upon compensation.”

CNN has reached out to the JFF for comment but is yet to hear back. In a statement on its website, the JFF acknowledged that “things have not been done perfectly” but that it is “working assiduously to resolve” players’ concerns.

And JFF president Michael Ricketts said last month that the federation wanted to “make sure we provide as much as we can for the girls,” Reuters reported.

Chinyelu Asher, who played for Jamaica at the last World Cup, told CNN that the purpose of the statement was to “reel in” the federation and make them take the women’s team more seriously.

“People want to know what the progress has been from the last World Cup and I’m like: ‘Well, here we are doing it again,’” Asher said, referencing the previous issues the team has faced.

The Reggae Girlz now have a contractual agreement with their national federation, according to Asher, but still had to release a public statement to ensure that they received the best possible support for a World Cup.

Marley says she hasn’t been in contact with the federation since the players’ open later, instead choosing to focus solely on how she can directly help the women’s team. Even when she first became involved with the squad in 2014, Marley says she had little contact with the JFF.

“I just really talked to the girls to find out what their needs were because I can’t be effective knowing what their [the JFF] problem is,” she said. “I’d rather know what the needs are for the female team.

“I don’t really concern myself with matters that don’t concern me. You know, the girls have spoken; hopefully, the federation has listened.

“But what I do is that I have direct conversations with the girls to see how I can assist and I take it from there because I don’t think the Jamaican federation is different from any other federation,” Marley adds, mentioning the ongoing dispute between England’s Lionesses and their FA over bonus payments.

‘Football is Freedom’

Even with all she has achieved alongside the women’s national team, perhaps Marley’s greatest accomplishment in soccer is the founding of her ‘Football is Freedom’ initiative.

The name is taken from one of her father’s famous quotes, and in October 2021, the initiative launched with a week-long training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, providing the women’s national teams of Jamaica and Costa Rica with training facilities before they faced off in a friendly.

Since then, the initiative has expanded. In February of last year – on what would have been her father’s 77th birthday – Football is Freedom hosted its first girls’ soccer clinic in Jamaica, focusing on developing young women both as players and people.

Marley says her initiative aims to help the girls develop life skills, providing them with mentorship and opportunities for higher education.

“I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned over the last nine years and applied it to building what I hope is a better future, not only for my country, but Football is Freedom is an initiative that hopefully the world will adopt,” Marley said.

“We’re starting from the grassroots level in Jamaica right now … and we’re giving every girl a chance to become a game changer, not just on the pitch, but in their homes, in their communities and in life in general.”

Marley admits she never really understood her father’s quote when was younger, but says it now resonates profoundly with her following the journey she has been on over the last nine years.

“It’s like I’m living it,” she said.

Soccer can be a way out for girls living in “rough communities” in Jamaica, Marley says, with some players going on to earn scholarships and the success of Football is Freedom has seen the initiative welcome Adidas and Common Goal as partners.

She has seen first-hand how gifted some of the girls are and says this natural talent for soccer “can change their lives.” All they need, she said, is to be given “proper structure.”

“I’m feeling lucky so far, but I know it’s not easy to do what I’m trying to do,” Marley says. “It’s going to take a whole bunch of people that believe in the same thing to actually make a difference.

“So I’m reaching out to those believers who believe in some small way they can bring about change in people’s mindsets because these girls deserve the opportunity.

“Every single opportunity that we can give them.”

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