The 2019 Women’s World Cup: Jamaica Rise Again

The 2019 Women’s World Cup kicks off on Friday evening at Parc des Princes in Paris, when the host nation France take on South Korea in their opening group match. Over the next few days, we’ll be bringing you a little bit of build-up to the tournament, starting with the remarkable rebirth of the Jamaican national women’s team.

That they even managed to qualify in the first place is little short of miraculous, but the arrival of the Jamaican national team in France for this summer’s Women’s World Cup is a story which demonstrates the difference between the haves and the have-nots on more than one level. On the one hand it paints a picture of the disparity in resources between different football federations, but on the other the story of what has happened to women’s football in Jamaica over the last decade or so also demonstrates the extent to which the women’s game can – and will – be treated as an afterthought when there’s competition for funding.

Jamaica is the only team playing in the tournament which has no players who play in their domestic league. The reason for that is as straightforward as it is depressing. There is no women’s football league in Jamaica. Indeed, for several years over the course of the last decade, Jamaica have had no women’s team whatsoever. The team played their first match against Haiti in 1991, but after failing to qualify for the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympic Games the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) cut funding for the national team in 2010, effectively disbanding it. By the following year, the team had fallen off FIFA’s international rankings altogether due to a lack of matches.

In 2014, however, the team was reborn thanks to both the generosity and hard work of one person. Cedella Marley is the daughter of the late Bob Marley, and as such her name alone holds a degree of influence within the country, even though she lives in Florida herself. In 2014, the team was revived with Marley, acting as both an ambassador and fundraiser to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to get the team back to a competitive level, with trainers, doctors, chiropractors and nutritionists now on board as part of an altogether more professional set-up than the women’s game in the country has ever seen before. The Alacran Foundation, a philanthropic organisation which invests in art, music, sports and social initiatives that increase education and inclusion for youth and communities, was persuaded on board, along with several corporate sponsors.

The team’s route to this year’s finals in France began with qualification for the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which also acted as the qualifiers for the tournament. They began with three games played in Haiti, a mini-tournament which saw them qualify by the skin of their teeth. After beating Guadelope thirteen-nil and Martinique three-nil in their opening two matches they went into their final match against the hosts needing just a point to qualify for the finals. This, however, didn’t turn out to be a completely straightforward task, and Jamaica found themselves two goals down before goals from Trudi Carter and Khadija Shaw hauled them back into the match and off to the USA for the finals, with Haiti being pipped by two goals on goal difference. They had “only” managed to beat Guadelope by eleven goals to nil in their match.

After losing their opening match at the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship by a creditable two-goal margin to Canada, Jamaica recovered to beat Costa Rica and Cuba to qualify for the semi-finals. It was always unlikely to impossible that they would be able to find a way past the current world champions, the USA, in the semi-finals, and a six-nil defeat wasn’t any great surprise. However, with CONCACAF having three spots at the World Cup, this didn’t mean the end of their involvement in the tournament. Instead, the third-fourth place play-off match took on an extra layer of significance, with the winners claiming a place in the finals as well as a bronze medal in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship and the losers having to play another play-off, against Argentina.

This time, playing against Panama in Frisco Texas, it was Jamaica who found themselves pegged back, both in normal time and in extra-time, where an equalising goal with five minutes to play cancelled out a lead which they might have hoped would see them through. Two Panama misses in the penalty shoot-out, however, were enough to secure Jamaica’s place in this summer’s World Cup whilst, as if to demonstrate how important this result was for them, Panama lost their play-off match against Argentina by five goals to one on aggregate.

There’s no question that they have a tough group in France, though, having been drawn to play the USA, Australia and Italy. With this being a twenty-four team tournament, though, there will be four places available for third-placed teams in the last sixteen of the competition. One win from their three matches could be enough to edge them through to the second round of the competition, although goal difference may also turn out to be important, meaning that they likely can’t afford another six-nil drubbing like the one they were handed by the USA last summer.

The biggest battle, however, has already been won. For a team from a country with no domestic league – it has been estimated that there are only a few thousand women regularly playing the game in Jamaica, whilst a lack of domestic infrastructure is only likely to limit the chances of hitherto undiscovered talent breaking through – and which has spent half of the last decade without a women’s national team of any sort, just to be in France for a World Cup finals in the first place is a remarkable achievement. With players such as Shakira Duncan, who was the team’s leading scorer during pre-qualifying with fourteen goals, twice the amount of the next-closest scorer from any country, though, it seems unlikely that Jamaica will be considering themselves as being there just to make up the numbers.

Football has a tendency to reflect the world in which we live, and not all national federations are created equal. That the Jamaican Football Federation had to make the cuts that it did is a reflection upon the inequality that exists between countries, federations, and arguably even confederations, in the first place. That the victims of the cuts should have been the women’s team probably isn’t too much of a surprise, either, though. There will, of course, be many who will argue the “market forces” trope, that women’s football should only be viable if it “pays for itself”, but this only works if we are to believe that we should live in world in which there is no financial redistribution. It should be obvious that the development of women’s football will only be hampered by a lack of financial support from elsewhere.

That said, however, it is a sign of the growth of the women’s game on a global scale that the level of sponsorship that was found through the tireless work of Cedella Marley can be found. It is to be hoped that this rebirth isn’t a flash in the pan, and that the sponsors hang around after the bunting for this particular tournament has been taken down. FIFA could take a leading role in this by increasing the prize money and appearance money for taking part in these tournaments in the first place, and if it’s serious about upholding its stated aim to “positively promote the game of football in every way,” it will act to ensure that a women’s national team is never again treated as an accessory to be discarded when the financial going gets tough.