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At World Cup, My Head Says Root For U.S. Women. My Heart Says Cheer For Reggae Girlz

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Richard W. Rodriguez
/
AP
Defender Dominique Bond-Flasza (16) hugs goalkeeper Nicole McClure after Jamaica qualified for the women's soccer World Cup last year.

COMMENTARY

I’m as big a fan of the U.S. national women’s soccer team as you’ll find.

That’s not just because coach Jill Ellis is a neighbor of ours here in Palmetto Bay, or because my wife taught her daughter. I follow the Yanks, as they’re nicknamed, because I follow soccer – and they’re arguably the best soccer unit in the world today, male or female. They play a high-octane but piston-precise attacking game you rarely see from the U.S. men’s team. And they had the admirable brass this year to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay because they are indeed that much better.

But right now, a couple days before the women’s soccer World Cup starts in France, I gotta admit: my head says root for the American femmes, but my heart says cheer for the Reggae Girlz.

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They're the Jamaican women’s team. The Yanks may be the team you’re expecting to win the Cup, but the Girlz are the squad you’re hoping will win it – or at least have the kind of run that casts an international spotlight on their unlikely but unflinching journey to France.

I certainly respect the U.S. women for standing up to U.S. Soccer’s chauvinism. (Any father like me, who has a daughter roughly the same age as those players, can’t help respect them.) But the Reggae Girlz have overcome more formidable obstacles. U.S. Soccer balks at giving its women more equitable pay; Jamaica’s governing body often  looks loath to let the Caribbean island’s women play.

This summer Jamaica's Reggae Girlz take the big stage free of any male shadow like Usain Bolt's, and they can help empower girls and women in other developing – and developed – countries.

As recently as 2014, in fact, the Jamaica Football (soccer) Federation wasn’t even funding a women’s national team. That had a lot to do with Jamaica’s own entrenched sexism. In the late 20th century, U.S. women stars like Mia Hamm could at least play in youth leagues for girls. In the early 21st century, Reggae Girlz like leading scorer Khadija “Bunny” Shaw still grew up being told it wasn’t right for gyals (girls) to even dribble a soccer ball.

But dribble they did, albeit covertly, convincing their brothers and boyfriends to let them into pickup games in parks and streets. Those outings  made them especially good players precisely because they had to be better than the bwoys (boys).

And because so many are so good – and because many overcame childhoods in some of Jamaica’s poorest and most violent communities – the daughter of Jamaica’s most famous son took up their cause five years ago.

Cedella Marley – eldest daughter of the late reggae superstar Bob Marley – lives in Miami. When word got to her here in 2014 that Jamaica had no national women’s soccer team, she got angry. And she did something about it – launching a fundraising campaign that featured a song, “Strike Hard,” she recorded in her South Florida studio. The effort just barely got talent like Shaw into national uniforms and into international competition.

HARDSCRABBLE ODYSSEY

Then last year the Reggae Girlz’ hardscrabble odyssey – which included a volunteer coach, Jamaican-American Hue Menzies of Orlando, and another ridiculous attempt by the Jamaican federation to dissolve the team – paid off. They pounded their way through qualifier games in the Caribbean until they faced Panama in Texas for a spot in the World Cup. The Girlz won in overtime on penalty kicks – thanks largely to goalie Nicole McClure’s two blocks.

Those were reminiscent of goalkeeper Briana Scurry’s diving save of a penalty kick to help the U.S. win the 1999 World Cup. And that’s perhaps the root of my rooting for the Reggae Girlz. They remind me of the same gritty charisma that captured not only the ’99 tournament but the world’s imagination – including that of my then-young daughter.

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Credit YouTube
Cedella Marley (center) in a promo video for the song "Strike Hard" she recorded for the Jamaican women's soccer team with her brothers Stephen and Damian Marley.

Jamaican women athletes have conquered the world before – especially sprinters like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. But they were largely obscured by the supernova of Jamaican male sprinter Usain Bolt. This summer the Reggae Girlz take the big stage free of any such shadow. And they have a big chance to seize the globe’s attention in ways that can help empower girls and women in other developing –  and developed – countries.

It won’t be easy. The Girlz face powerhouse Brazil in their first Cup game on Sunday. Still, they possess the pluck of Jamaica’s first female prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller – who once said in the island’s patois, “I don’t ‘fraid a no man, no gyal, nowhere!”

Not in Jamaica. And certainly not at the World Cup.