Jamaica has qualified for the 2023 Women's World Cup as one of the top four finishers at the CONCACAF W Championship. The Reggae Girlz next face Canada on Thursday night in the tournament semifinals.
Next summer's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will mark Jamaica's second appearance in soccer's premier tournament. They were the first-ever Caribbean team to make the field in 2019.
The Reggae Girlz have made a dramatic climb onto the international stage. The team didn't exist just six years ago and it has had to constantly struggle for funding.
“There’s so much higher levels that we can reach with even more investment from back home,” forward Kayla McCoy said. “So we’re kind of excited to see what comes from us qualifying again, because not a lot of people thought we could do it again. I think it kind of solidified us into this position and now people know that that we’re for real and will begin to invest a bit more."
The team was disbanded in 2008 after failing to qualify for the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.
In 2014, Bob and Rita Marley's eldest daughter, Cedella, made it her mission to resurrect the team. While Jamaica didn't qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the team attracted fans through its connection to the Marley family.
Cedella Marley has been a tireless ambassador for the team, drumming up much-needed sponsors. A GoFundMe was once set up to help Jamaica train and players have held other fundraisers. But even with success, the Reggae Girlz struggle to get funding from the Jamaican federation.
Jamaica has also overcome considerable turbulence at the helm in recent years. Coach Lorne Donaldson just took over at the beginning of June — he's had just a month with the team.
After Hue Menzies resigned because of a pay dispute with the federation following the 2019 World Cup, he was replaced in 2020 by Hubert Busby Jr., who has been accused of sexual misconduct while coaching a women's club team in Canada. He has denied the allegations.
Busby was dismissed late last year and Jamaica appointed Vin Blaine, who was forced to resign after 20 national team players sent a letter to the federation saying they could not support him.
“I think the important thing for us as a group is that we stuck together through everything and we overcame those challenges," McCoy said. “The women on this team have had each other’s backs from the start and from the beginning, and I think the group that we have, and the family that we have is what has kept us going through all of this and what has kept us kind of overcoming those obstacles."
There's also been personal tragedy during CONCACAF qualifying. A promising youth national team player, Jedine Carr, was killed in a shooting Friday while on her way to a club team practice in Jamaica.
A moment of silence was used to honor Carr before the final group stage matches at the tournament. Khadija Shaw held up Carr's jersey when the team celebrated its victory over Haiti that secured its World Cup berth.
Shaw, better known by her nickname Bunny, plays professionally for Manchester City and is Jamaica's biggest star. Just 25, she already has 54 goals in 38 appearances with the Reggae Girlz.
Shaw scored a pair of goals in the 4-0 victory over Haiti. In celebration, Cedella Marley posted to Twitter: "FIFA Women’s World Cup here we come. ... I am so proud, the entire country is so proud."
And there's another Marley who has more recently taken up the cause. Skip Marley, Cedella's son, has allowed his song “Lions” to be used as the W Championship's official anthem.
In addition to Jamaica's game against Canada on Thursday, the United States plays Costa Rica in the other semifinal.
While those four teams have already locked up spots at the World Cup, there's another prize on the line for the winner of the tournament: a spot in the 2024 Olympics in France.
“Canada is the Olympic champion. So you have the Olympic champion and the world champion still in the tournament and we are with them. I mean, to me, that’s good, that at this part of the tournament we are still playing for something."
Donaldson pointed out that the Jamaican team has already come a long way judging by its company in the semifinals. Canada won gold at the Tokyo Games and the United States is the two-time defending World Cup champion.