The Jamaican women’s national team reached new heights in 2023. Here’s how Cedella Marley, daughter of Bob Marley, helped make it happen.
It’s been more than 40 years since her father passed, but Cedella Marley still vividly recalls one of the best pieces of advice she received from him as a teenager:
“If you don’t believe you can become something, you’re going to work toward being nothing.”
The late reggae icon Bob Marley remains a fundamental part of Jamaican culture and boasts a lineage that has continued to spread the ideology of peace, love, and harmony at the core of his music. Cedella Marley is a revered singer herself and was once a part of the now-disbanded Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers alongside sister Sharon and brothers Ziggy and Stephen. These days, as the acting director of the Bob Marley Foundation, Cedella makes headlines for advancing the foundation’s philanthropic projects.
Most recently, that has involved working with the Jamaican women’s national soccer team.
The first Caribbean nation to ever reach the knockouts, the Reggae Girlz amassed a legion of fans on the pitch at this year’s World Cup. Off the pitch, their resilience added even more supporters. Marley is Head of Football is Freedom (FIF) and the Bob Marley Foundation and admits at one point that she didn’t even know Jamaica had a women’s side. However, since being involved with the team dating back to 2014, she has been an instrumental component to their success, especially as it pertains to acquiring funding for training, uniforms, travel, and other basic necessities.
Midfielder Deneisha Blackwood even likened her to a “fairy godmother,” to which Marley credits her parents for being an example and instilling values of selflessness.
“As a daughter of Bob and Rita, I grew up with the living examples of both of them,” Cedella Marley told Boardroom. “My father’s passed now over 40 years, and my mother, thank God, is still here. For all these years, she had to be a strong woman. She’s a force, you know. She especially taught me that to have a powerful voice, you have to use it to amplify the things that you want to see change. It goes from society to human conditions. Growing up in Jamaica, my parents taught us that once we believe in — and I know it’s a cliche — once you believe in something, you can achieve it.”
With mantras like that, it’s no wonder Marley has always believed the Reggae Girlz were destined for success.
Football is Freedom
Bob Marley was a decorated musician, but the 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was also an ardent lover of football. Often photographed playing with his band on fields both makeshift and perfectly manicured, his lasting impact on Jamaican sports has led to the creation of the Football is Freedom initiative, which operates under the Bob Marley Foundation.
“Daddy loved football and he’s the one that created the slogan Football is Freedom,” Marley explained. “So he’s the inspiration behind the name. Football is Freedom takes everything that we’ve seen and learned through my work with The Reggae Girlz, and we applied it to the women’s game at every level, from grassroots through to college, career opportunities, and beyond.”
When they launched in October 2021, it began with a week-long camp in Fort Lauderdale, providing the women’s national teams of Jamaica and Costa Rica with training facilities before they competed in a friendly at DNV Pink Stadium.
“I probably should have gone to a smaller venue,” she joked, “but I was like: ‘It’s Costa Rica.’ And Costa Rica is one of those teams that when it comes on to Jamaica, we have sort of a love-hate relationship.”
Since then, Football is Freedom has introduced grassroots clinics and a college showcase team. Though its roots are planted in Jamaica, Marley’s vision is much broader because she “believes there’s a Reggae Girl everywhere in the world.”
Naturally, as players experience success, commercial opportunities follow. Most notably, Marley has partnered with Adidas to share more about her non-profit. Football is Freedom was featured in the inaugural episode of the Three Stripes’ OCEAUNZ TV series on YouTube.
“Daddy always wore Adidas. He was like a brand ambassador without being a brand ambassador,” she said. “When you go back and you look at some of his images, he’s rocking Adidas. So through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with them on special projects. We’ve done little drops and capsules here and there. So when they heard about Football is Freedom, they reached out and offered to connect me with Common Goal.
“The timing was perfect because the Reggae Girlz were just preparing for the first overseas tournament, and the film crew came to Jamaica one weekend to shoot the training session. The girls were just totally excited to be a part of the episode and it’s already helped us to raise some funds.”
The Makings of a World Cup Caliber Squad
Entering any competition as underdogs is normal for the Reggae Girlz, but Marley has always seen the best in this squad and believes wholeheartedly that one day they’ll be playing in a final for one of soccer’s biggest trophies. After all, they’ve got the strength of an entire nation supporting them.
“Jamaica may be a small island, but it has heart. We have our saying: ‘We Likkle But Wi Tallawah.’ And that means ‘We’re little but we’re mighty,'” she said. “One of our national heroes is Queen Nanny. In these girls, I see the characteristics of Nanny, a strong woman. The players have not had an easy road, but they’re always in warrior mode. They’re always ready to take on whatever’s given to them, whether on the pitch or just in real life.”
Although their time at the World Cup was cut short, Marley believes the ladies achieved more than what they could have imagined, and are an inspiration for the youth, aka soccer’s next Khadija Shaw.
“That definitely makes an impact on any little young girl that’s watching, the journey of the Reggae Girlz’s resilience,” Marley said. “Because everybody knows it wasn’t easy, but they fought through it and stood their ground. You go up to play, you should get paid. Your gear should not be men’s gear. It should be women’s gear. And so on.”
As the conversation surrounding equal pay heats up, it hits a little closer to home for Marley. Although they qualified for this summer’s games, disputes between the Reggae Girlz and JFF nearly prevented them from attending. Thankfully, travel costs were covered by the JFF, FIFA, the Reggae Girlz Foundation, and the Bob Marley Foundation. The Government of Jamaica also covered a lot of the expenses and of course, Adidas played a huge role by covering other training costs.
“The Reggae Girls consist of professional and collegiate footballers who are spread out across the world,” Shaw wrote on Instagram in June. “To be left questioning whether a camp will even take place two to three days before the expected start is unprofessional and often unfairly prohibitive for some of our players.”
Marley told Boardroom that she hasn’t spoken with the JFF, but changing their mind is not her primary focus. That honor goes to the Reggae Girlz and their long-term success.
“I don’t want to fix them,” she asserts. “I want to fix how our girls go out there and represent because that to me is easy. I can do what I need to do for the women’s program in Jamaica outside of them, in spite of them too. So I just respectfully keep my distance.”
What’s Next for the Reggae Girlz?
The FIFA Women’s World Cup may be officially over, but the enthusiasm level surrounding the team couldn’t be higher. Marley teases that brands are coming forward and — who knows? — perhaps players may have done enough to capture the attention of recruiters for top clubs worldwide. As for the next time the national team will take the pitch together, next month the Reggae Girlz are scheduled to play Canada in a two-leg showdown for a spot in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Marley confirms she will be in attendance for the home contest on Sept. 22 and the second match on Sept. 26 in Toronto.
Her father may not have lived to see the significance of his daughter’s work, but Cedella Marley is doing her best to honor his memory. As she continues to be an influence in the Caribbean and beyond, the message she has for others is simple:
“What my parents did for me and my siblings is something I would want other parents to do. Teach your children to believe in their dreams and work for their dreams. Not just by talking about it, but also by being an example. Invest in them so that they want to invest in themselves. It’s something that I’m reminded of every single day as I look at my kids and my nieces and nephews, too. They have to put in the work, but we have to remind them that we believe in them.”
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