Author: Sascha Düerkop
Probably, the first ever female professional football player was Jamaican: Beverly Ranger. She was the second woman to win the “Goal of the Month” award in Germany in 1975, which caught the attention of sports brand Puma, who sponsored her for a few years afterwards. She became so popular in Germany that one club, Offenbach, provided her with a flat for free, the first payment in kind any female footballer in Germany ever received. Yet, Ranger will not appear in this article again, mostly because she never played in Jamaica or for the Jamaican national team – such a team didn’t exist when she was famous in Germany. But football in Jamaica today, almost 50 years after the peak of Beverly Ranger’s career, is on the rise and, as this history of the country’s women’s football will show, not for the first time.
Wikipedia only contains a single sentence about the beginnings of women’s football in Jamaica: “Women’s football in Jamaica started with the founding of the Jamaican Women’s Football association (founded by Andrea Lewis its first president) in 1987”. The source for this claim is an article of the Jamaica Gleaner, the main daily newspaper of the island and the oldest in the entire Western Hemisphere, continuously published since 1834. While it is hard to put a starting date to the sport on Jamaica, a look into the archives of the Gleaner quickly proved that Wikipedia’s apparent “start of women’s football in Jamaica” is dated at least 54 years too late.
In fact, the first mention of “Ladies football”, as football played by women was called until the 1970s, dates back to January 22, 1895. On that date, a brief note in the Gleaner states that the football match “Clowns vs. Ladies”, which was previously played in Spanish Town, will soon be repeated. As there is no further information about this match (or the one played the year before), one can only assume that it was an event similar to “The Grand Clown Match”, a cricket event played in the same period in Jamaica. This was a cricket match that was adapted to suit the Jamaican Creole Christmas and was held every year at New Year’s Eve. Eleven cricketers were dressed up in various clown costumes to then play against the Kingston Club, the cricket club of the British colonialists. If the “Ladies” in this match were actual women playing football or, similar to the Clowns – men dressed up in costumes – remains unclear. Either way, it was probably more of a festival than a serious football match.
In 1934, the editor of the Gleaner then wrote an opinion piece to detail why he believes that women should not play football. There is no context to the piece and it is unclear if the editor is replying to an ongoing public debate or just felt the need to make a point. That his opinion was not undisputed on the island, however, was just proven a year later when the first ever women’s football match kicked off in Kingston. To raise funds for the Jubilee Memorial Fund, two teams met at the Sabina Park, the largest sports ground on the island at the time and home of the Kingston Cricket Club, on November 29 of 1935. That the Gleaner was not very fond of women playing football is proven by two incredibly sexist announcements of the match, which frame it as “comedy”, women as “handicapped” and argue that such a match will never happen again.
The result of this very first match is not known, but what we can read in the Jamaica Gleaner is that the “Whites” beat the “Blues” and only 6 days after the match, the Gleaner announces that the Blues are seeking revenge and a second match is planned to take place, this time raising funds for Wortley Home, an orphanage that still exists today. We also learn from the newspaper articles that the match was a massive success and attracted large numbers of spectators. In total, 28 Pounds was raised, which is equivalent to roughly 2,000 Pounds in today’s purchasing power. While the return match was scheduled and announced to be played on December 13 of the same year, reports about the outcome of that match are missing in the archives of the Gleaner.
A year later, in 1936, the women took the pitch again, in another match between the Blues and the Whites, again raising funds for charity, this time for the “Lunch Fund”. On August 27, a day after the match, the Gleaner reported that the Whites won again, this time 3-1, and provided some more details about the sport at the time. The players wore rubber shoes, rather than boots, and played four quarters of 12 minutes each. Judging by the team pictures, each team apparently had 9 players. For the first time, we also have proof of an attendance number: 750 spectators came to the ground and raised a total of 18 Pounds.
It is also in 1936 that the tone starts to drastically change – away from perceiving women’s football solely as a joke and reassuring the readers that it will not become a regular event. After the match above the editor notes “the only people who didn’t enjoy it were those who came to jeer at the girls’ efforts to play the game, but had to remain to cheer, as the standard of football displayed was very good indeed”. The discriminatory social barriers were not overcome, though, as an opinion piece on September 18, following a second match in 1936, shows. Asked by a reader, if there is a chance for regular and competitive league football for women in Jamaica, the editor concludes that “football is essentially not a women’s game”. He argued that the Caribbean weather is not as suited for women to play football as the English weather and that, despite this, women’s football did not prove to be a success in England either.
Regardless of the views of the editor of the Gleaner, women’s football really kicked off in 1936. On October 17, the first match was played outside of Kingston, in Montego Bay, between two local teams. The Kingston-based journalists were impressed to report that 680 people attended the match, leading to revenues of 17 Pounds. Later that month, women in Port Antonio, the third city of the island, took the pitch as well. The Reds of Port Antonio beat the local Blues 2:0.
In Kingston, the first competitive matches were played in this period. The Ladies Football Eleven became the first organized team. They were affiliated to Wembley AC, the best men’s football club at the time in Jamaica and beat the “Lionesses”, another Kingston team, 7:0 in their debut match. Before the Ladies Football Eleven’s second match, against the Blues, either the editor changed or started to finally warm up to the idea of women’s football when he notes “it certainly looks as if this girls’ football has come to stay, and the answer to ‘what’s wrong with our football?’ seems to be ‘we want some more girls’” adding that they “play a bright, and certainly attractive game and there’s sure to be a big crowd” for the upcoming match against the Blues. The Blues, one of the two teams with a full year of experience by then, beat the Ladies Football Eleven 2:0.
In November of 1936, women’s football was all over the sports news of the island. Every second daily edition of the Gleaner now contains an article on the sport, often including full columns or half-page detailed match reports. Subsequently, the editor singles out women’s football as the “main talking point of the season” in the edition of November 13, arguing that a league should be implemented, as the sport as a whole, for all genders, would benefit from it. He goes even beyond raising this and directly calls sponsors to finally get on board with it, stressing how incredibly popular it has become.
A few days later, on November 18, the first silverware in the history of women’s football in Jamaica was meant to be handed over when The Reds and the Blues met at the company pitch of Unifruitco in the semi final of the “Silver Cup”. As the match ended in a 1-1 draw, a decisive second match was scheduled for November 24, the day of the final. While the Blues beat the Reds by 2-0 this time, they were reportedly exhausted and tired when they had to play the Whites in the final after just an hour’s break. Unsurprisingly, the Whites thus won the first ever trophy, winning the final 2-0. To acknowledge the importance of the event, the President of the Jamaican Football Association attended the match and handed over the trophy in front of a capacity crowd.
At this stage, new firsts were celebrated almost on a weekly basis. Just weeks after the Silver Cup final, the Wembley Ladies (previously called Ladies Football Eleven) travelled to Saint Anne to promote the sport in the fourth city of the island. The match drew large numbers and a local selection managed to draw 1-1 against the much more experienced side from Kingston. Just a month later, in January 1937, the first match between men and women was organised. The “boys team” beat the “girls team” 4:2 in Kingston. On the same day, the editor of the Gleaner again gives an insight into the debate on women’s football on the island. He stresses that the “cry for more ladies football” is increasing daily and argues that the public opinion turned and is now in favour of it, with matches drawing more supporters than most of the top men’s matches.
By the end of 1937, a “women’s football series” was reportedly started. The curtain raiser was a match between the “Unbeaten Whites” and an all-star team of all other clubs, called “The Determined Rest”. The match, which was described as “one of the big sporting events of the season” was eventually won 2-1 by the “Rest”, robbing the Whites of their historic title of being unbeaten.
Surprisingly, when women’s football seemed to be at its peak in Jamaica, it suddenly seemed to stop. At least the reporting did. With the exception of a 1939 match between “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” and a charity match for the war fund in Port Antonio in 1940, the Gleaner did not report about women’s football until 1960 anymore. And when it did again, in July 1960, it reported about a match of the Corinthians from England and Nomads, apparently from Scotland although other sources say they were from Manchester, that was played in Kingston. At that time, the prime days of football on the island seems to be forgotten, as the article starts claiming that the match is a “novel treat” for Jamaica and Sabina Park, not making any mention of the very regular matches held at this very stadium in the mid-1930s.
This media silence was only very rarely broken until the 1990s. In 1968, the Gleaner reports that the Kingston and Saint Andrew’s Football Association (KSAFA), a local football governing body, set up a women’s football club the year before, but ceased its operation as it wanted to focus on men’s football instead. There was talk of restarting the KSAFA club and even organising a nationwide league, but they never seemed to materialise. In 1977, there was finally talk about a competition again, for the first time since the Silver Cup of 1937: The Jones’ Town women’s league, which was apparently played since 1975. It featured four teams, Flat United, Woodrow United, Base One and African Youth, and was won by Flats United in 1975.
In 1982, the time for big news for women in football finally came again. Esperanza Forbes was given her credentials as the first ever female referee, qualified to referee in all levels of football in Jamaica. Three years later, when she was awarded a medal of honour for her “work in an area dominated by man”, the Gleaner states that Esperanza Forbes was not only the first female referee in Jamaica, but in the entire American continent and rumoured to be only the third worldwide.
The topic of women’s football only finds its way back to the newspaper in 1990, though. In February, the Gleaner reported that the Boogie Girls won the newly established league of Kingston and St. James region, erroneously labelling “the first women’s football champions”. The Boogie Girls beat the Boy’s Town Wild Cats 3:2 on penalties in the final. Later that year, another letter to the editor was published, calling the “football bosses” to finally support women’s football and do so nationwide, as this new regional league is such a massive success.
The KSAFA governed league was a success and, according to the Gleaner, attracted decent numbers of spectators and became more and more competitive over the years. The Boogie Girls, the initial champions, never managed to get their hands on the trophy again, though, losing their 1990/1991 final against the Boys’ Town Wild Cats, who would go on to win the trophy three times in a row. As the archive of the Gleaner is incomplete and the league was not regularly reported on, the only other known winners are AC Milan, who won the trophy in the 1997/1998 season. After Milan’s victory, the league disbanded to be replaced by a nationwide league.
It was in the same period that a Jamaican national team was put together hastily for the first time, too. In an effort to participate in the initial women’s FIFA World Cup in China in 1991, the Football Association sent a team to the first regional North American and Caribbean women’s championship, which was played in the same year and served as a qualification tournament for the World Cup. In front of 40,000 spectators, the team lost all of its group matches, however, against hosts Haiti (0:1), Canada (0:9) and Costa Rica (1:2). After skipping the second CONCACAF tournament in the US in 1993, the team once again attended and tried to qualify for the next World Cup in 1994, this time traveling to Canada. While their result against the host slightly improved, losing only 0:7 this time, they went on to lose against fellow Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago (1:2), Mexico (1:3) and the USA (0:10) to, once again, finish last and miss the World Cup. These disappointing results resulted in a defunding of the national team by the Jamaican Football Association, which did not even send a team to the 1998 and 2000 editions of the North American and Caribbean championship.
By then, football had become so popular on the entire island, that the regional KSAFA governed league disbanded and the Jamaican Football Association finally implemented a nationwide league in 1999. A league that was initially dominated by the Portmore Strikers from a suburb of Kingston, who won the trophy in the 2001 and 2002, before the club Barbican from the Kingston quarter by the same name, took over and won 12 of the next 17 titles. The dominance of Barbican was only broken in 2018, when Waterhouse won their second title and defended it the year after. The 2020, and most recent, champions are Olympic Gardens, who defeated Waterhouse on penalties in the last played league final.
Possibly thanks to the nationwide league, the national team started to slightly improve as well. While the team finished last at the 2002 North American and Caribbean championships once again, they finally could excel in the 2006 edition. In the first, regional, group stage they easily skipped past Saint Lucia (5:0), Antigua and Barbuda (10:0) and Saint Kitts and Nevis (11:0). In a subsequent second group stage, they again topped the group, beating Bermuda (7:0) and Haiti (3:0) convincingly and thus made it to the final tournament in the USA, which was entirely played in a knock-out format. While they could get past Panama (2:0), they eventually lost their semi final against the host Canada (0:4) and the bronze medal against Mexico (0:3) to finish fourth.
For the next few years, the Jamaican national team did enter some, but not all, regional tournaments and World Cup qualifications and regularly finished last in their group. The final breakthrough then came in 2018, when Jamaica managed to finish third in the North American and Caribbean championship, just behind Canada and the USA, to qualify for their first World Cup participation in France 2019. While they did lose all their three World Cup group stage matches against Brazil (0:3), Italy (0:5) and Australia (1:4), they proved to be competitive on the biggest stage in football. Havana Solaun, who was born in Hong Kong to a Jamaican mother and a Cuban-American father and decided to play for Jamaica, became the first ever goalscorer for Jamaica at a World Cup.
What might sound like a fairytale finally coming true, after almost 100 years of women’s football history in Jamaica, was indeed, to a big degree, the outcome of a long-term project of one of the most prominent Jamaicans: Cedella Marley, the CEO of the Marley companies, and daughter of Reggae legend Bob Marley. In 2014, the Reggae Girlz, as the national team is called on the island, contacted Cedella Marley, as the team was once again defunded by the Football Association and struggled to survive or travel to any tournaments or friendlies. Cedella, at the time, did not even know that a women’s national team existed, as it was so badly promoted by the governing body. She immediately got behind the team and quickly raised 500,000$ for the team, by finding sponsors for them and matching every dollar she raised with 100$ of her own money. Later that year, she even recorded a song for the Reggae Girlz, “Strike Hard”, together with her brothers Damian and Stephan Marley.
While this allowed the team to carry on, it was not enough to really improve, especially as the Jamaican Football Association further cut the funding of the women’s team in 2016. Thus, Marley reached out further and managed to get the US based Alacran Foundation involved, which funds the national team since. Together, Cedella and the Foundation managed to convince Hue Menzies, a former US Under-19 national team coach, to take over the team, and bring things into shape to make the next step. They did and Cedella Marley went to France with the team in 2019 to finally wave the Jamaican flag at a World Cup. This is not meant to be the end of the story, as is shown by “Football is freedom”, an NGO that Cedella Marley set up in October 2021 to raise the profile of Jamaican women’s football even further. The Reggae Girlz are finally going hand in hand with Reggae and it remains to be seen how far this strong team can go in future.