MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We turn now to the Women's World Cup, which has officially kicked off in France. Jamaica will make its debut as the underdog. They are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. But a couple of years ago, Jamaica didn't even have a national women's soccer team. Tomorrow, the Reggae Girlz, as they are known, take on Brazil. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this report.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Reggae Girlz took to the field in Scotland last week to play their final warm-up match before heading to France. A record 18,000 fans showed up. This was more than four times the previous record for a home game for the Scottish women's national squad. And the teams didn't disappoint.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Goal for Jamaica.
BEAUBIEN: Jamaica went up early on a goal by their star forward, Khadija Shaw, who is also known by her nickname, Bunny. In the end, Scotland, however, rallied to win. Twenty-four-year-old Natalie Lawrence, who describes herself as half-Jamaican, half-Scottish, was in the stands.
NATALIE LAWRENCE: Oh, it was a really good match. It was amazing. Like, let me just say Bunny Shaw, Khadija Shaw - she was amazing.
BEAUBIEN: But Khadija Shaw and the rest of the Jamaican women almost didn't make it to the Women's World Cup - not because they barely squeaked by Panama in the qualifiers but because just a few years ago, Jamaica didn't even have a national women's soccer team. The Jamaican football federation disbanded the Reggae Girlz in 2014. Then, after they were resurrected, the federation suspended funding for them again while facing budget shortfalls in 2016.
KHADIJA SHAW: I don't think a lot of people know what we've gone through behind the scenes.
BEAUBIEN: That's Khadija Shaw, the striker who netted two goals in the match against Scotland. Shaw says over the last five years, the Jamaican women's team has had to fight not just to survive but to fund their training camps. The players didn't even have their own uniforms. Until recently, their head coach was a volunteer. Even flying to Europe, the entire team's reservation out of Florida was cancelled because no one confirmed the tickets. The players got rebooked on flights that forced some of them to have to fly through Morocco and then Holland to get to Scotland. Much of their luggage was lost and only arrived just before the game.
SHAW: As I said, we'd face a lot of adversities and setbacks, so that's just nothing new to us.
BEAUBIEN: Shaw says the person who turned around the Jamaican national women's team was reggae star Bob Marley's daughter, Cedella. In 2014, Cedella Marley released a single, "Strike Hard," to cover basic expenses for the team. And since then, Cedella Marley has been a tireless advocate for the female squad.
CEDELLA MARLEY: For me, everyone should have their right to go after their dreams and passions without gender being a factor.
BEAUBIEN: But to Marley, it was clear that when it came to the Reggae Girlz, gender was a factor. In 2014, when the Jamaican Football Federation disbanded the team, the Federation continued to fund the men's team even though the Reggae Boyz hadn't qualified for a World Cup since 1998.
MARLEY: I'm not here to say, well, the men got this, and the men got that because they deserve to get all of that. The only problem that I have is when you're saying, well, we can't give that to the woman because we don't believe they're going to be good. We don't believe anybody will come to see them in the stadiums. We don't believe anybody's going to buy a T-shirt, so therefore, no. That wasn't going to work for me.
BEAUBIEN: Marley became the Reggae Girlz's hard-hitting fairy godmother. She spearheaded fundraising drives, badgered the Jamaican Football Federation for support and made it clear that she wasn't going to put up with what she calls outdated ideas about how girls shouldn't play soccer.
MARLEY: If you have a group of girls, who just want to play football, give them the resources to play football.
BEAUBIEN: But Jamaica is a nation of just three million people, and resources and public attention are limited.
KAREN MADDEN: And, to be honest, women's football is not very popular in Jamaica.
BEAUBIEN: Karen Madden, a sports reporter at The Gleaner newspaper in Kingston, says the Reggae Girlz have persevered because they've refused to take no for an answer for years.
MADDEN: These are Jamaicans. Khadija Shaw is from a tough, inner-city community. Jody Brown is from a rural town in St Anne. A lot of players on the team are from humble beginnings, and they are going to be playing on FIFA's top stage.
BEAUBIEN: Madden says the Jamaican squad has beaten the odds just to get to the Women's World Cup. And, she adds, she wouldn't bet against them now.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS SONG, "POSITIVE VIBRATION")
MARTIN: And we hope you'll tune in tomorrow when we plan to speak with soccer journalist Caitlin Murray about her history of the U.S. women's team and the triumphs and challenges of women in the sport.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSITIVE VIBRATION")
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Live if you want to live. Rastaman vibration, yeah, positive. Pickin' up, are you pickin' up now? Pickin' up, are you pickin' up now? Jah love, Jah love, protect us. Jah love, Jah love, protect us.
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