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The sky is the limit

Lance Neita

Sunday, October 21, 2018

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When the Reggae Girlz lost 0-6 to the USA in the Concacaf football championship on Sunday, October 14, I thought to myself that this is it. I had not been following the tournament closely, but I didn't see how a team could make it into the final berth after being mauled 6-0, and with the well-positioned Panama team waiting in the wings to have them for supper.

That was Sunday night, but then on the following Monday, Heroes' Day, the Sunshine Girls ripped into the English Roses 58-43 to complete a clean 3-0 sweep in their Test series at the 2018 Lasco Netball Series inside the National Indoor Sports Centre.

That was when we began to see all sorts of possibilities, as word was coming out of the Reggae Girlz camp in Texas that the netball victory back home had lifted them from down, to not out, and to a confidence that there was no turning back and they could do it against all odds.

So here we are this week, still enjoying the euphoria of Heroes' Day, and with two major achievements as a plus from our often-unheralded female sports heroines.

The Reggae Girlz are now celebrating after defeating Panama to secure their spot in the World Cup finals in France next year.

As fate would have it, their qualification comes on the 20th anniversary of the men's team reaching their first World Cup, in 1998, also held in France.

It was an emotional evening in the dressing room after the match as we are told by our reporters how tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of the talented players as they made their way back to the dressing room.

As reported by the Jamaica Observer's Sherdon Cowan, “Captain Konya Plummer is hoping that their demonstration of commitment and patriotism to Jamaica will inspire others.

“The feeling is unbelievable,” said Konya. “I am extremely happy that we accomplished what we set out to do after so much hard work. Congrats to everyone for what we have done for Jamaica, we hope this will have a big impact on the younger players and those around the world aspiring to achieve big things but who are struggling at the moment.”

Those like myself who may have written them off after the-6-0 mauling must have felt a bit ashamed, but frankly I was so happy and proud of the Girlz that I spent the evening lifting several toasts to them without any feeling of remorse.

This is a national moment, a proud moment, and significantly, a national heroes' holiday gift to Jamaica.

I remember in 1998 motoring over to Kingston from Mandeville with my wife to watch the Jamaica vs Mexico survival match live at the big screen in an insurance company building in New Kingston.

Many of us will not forget the date — November 16, 1997 — when our Jamaican football team made history by becoming the first English-speaking Caribbean island to enter the finals of the World Cup. There was so much joy, excitement and celebration on our little island that the Prime Minister P J Patterson had to declare the next day, November 17, 1997, a public holiday.

When the final whistle blew that evening we joined other motorists and circled the blocks blowing car horns and flicking our headlights. Moments like these deserve full, unchecked celebration. The entire Jamaica was partying.

Then came the announcement by Prime Minister P J Patterson, who was obviously enjoying an unusual exuberant mood, that he had declared a public holiday to mark the event.

It was then that the attaclapse kicked in.

The announcement caused one uproar, particularly in the business sector. “We already have too many holidays, we can't afford a short week! Who going pay the double time? This is high-handed behaviour!” And so on. Suddenly the euphoria of the football triumph had worn off. What made it worse was that the Opposition took it on. And so, like most things in Jamaica, a World Cup celebration became a political issue.

The prime minister has no right to declare a public holiday without parliamentary approval was the Opposition's line, but Patterson and his party stood their ground — and holiday we did. If truth be told, the holiday was readily welcomed by ecstatic Jamaican football lovers.

So here comes the rub now:. How come we got a holiday in 1998 and when the Girlz get through not even a whisper from “Miss Babsy” about holiday? What a gwaan? How come, me say. Well, don't hold your breath. After seeing the licking Patterson got from his declaration, and the everlasting beatings from his schoolmate Wilmot “Motty” Perkins on his radio show for years after, this Government isn't even going to mention it. After all, they were against it in 1998. Remember, cock mout' kill cock.

But let's talk a little bit more about our Girlz and their fantastic achievement against all odds. Remember, it was only in 1991 that a women's national team made their first appearance in international competition when they were beaten 1-0 by neighbouring Haiti. A few years later, in 1994, it must have been a bitter blow when the United States routed them 10-0; double figures, if you please.

The young upstarts had been put in their place and Jamaicans were regarding them as more of a pleasant distraction than serious contenders for international recognition.

On to 2002 and 2006, when they created a murmur, qualifying for the Women's Gold Cup, then suddenly the axe fell in 2008 when the team was disbanded after failing to get out of the Group stage of Olympics qualifying, which incidentally included top teams Mexico and the USA.

What made it worse was that in 2010, due to lack of funding, the Jamaica Football Federation cut the women's programme, and who could blame the rest of us for thinking that they had now been sent to the dust bin?.

By 2011 Jamaica was unranked on the FIFA rankings and the Girlz looked like history — that is, until in 2014 when Cedella Marley came to the rescue. That was the turning point. Marley became the team's official ambassador and has been working with the Reggae Girlz ever since.

Assistant Manager Andrew Price has paid tribute to Cedella and the Bob Marley Foundation, and the Alacran Foundation aligned with the Marleys, “who have assisted us all the way. We couldn't have done what we did without their support”.

Cedella is very passionate about the support she gives to the team. She once told the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service that she expected that the team would become a very dominant presence in women's football, but note the postscript: “...should they ever receive the same amount of investment the nation's track and field stars receive”.

So here we are with less than a year to go for World Cup 2019. How will corporate Jamaica respond to this new Road to France campaign? Jamaicans know a good thing when they see it, and I am going to bet that, notwithstanding a 6-0 difference or no between the USA and ourselves, this team is going to be one of the most popular in the 2019 Women's World Cup Tournament. And, undoubtedly, they are the most beautiful, charming, and talented girls on the planet.

Winger Ashleigh Shim is correctly analytical about the road ahead: “It's an amazing feeling right now to have qualified, and we have caught the attention we need. We have shown that we have a real product that we can use to market Jamaican football...and Jamaica.”

And from Ambassador Marley: “We still have a lot to prove. A lot of people make history, but the only way to keep our relevance is to keep winning. We don't compete to qualify, we compete to win.”

“With this programme the sky is the limit,” says Assistant Coach Lorne Donaldson. “Let's hope that all Jamaica will stay with us in the game.”

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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