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What comes next for the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica?

Jamaica made their first World Cup last summer. Now the future of the program may be in doubt.

Jamaica v Australia: Group C - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

A little over a year ago, the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica arrived in Texas hoping to qualify for a major international tournament for the first time. They had gone through a complete program cancellation and restart, but arrived full of promising young talent.

The year that followed was a whirlwind of excitement, development, and conflict. With a World Cup appearance on the table, a number of players with Jamaican ancestry were brought into the team. After a long period of inaction, the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) even sprung into action, scheduling several friendlies and negotiating a deal to pay the players.

And then, the team reached France, where they stepped onto the field with some of the best players in the world, from Marta to Sam Kerr to Barbara Bonansea. They didn’t win a game in a very tough group, but fought hard the whole way, improving from game to game. Watching them develop, the stage seemed set for Jamaica to take on a new role. They were not yet a dominant power in the region, but neither were they the plucky underdogs anymore. They were just a good team with a real chance. It felt like a new dawn.

But off the pitch, the old problems were swirling. The team was booked on a ridiculously convoluted route out to Europe. Once they arrived, accommodations were poor and facilities were underdeveloped. The pomp and circumstance of the World Cup surrounded them, but the gap remained stark between those countries with strong backing and those without.

Upon returning home, it all came to a head. The struggled in the Pan American Games at the end of July, amidst growing frustration about JFF’s refusal to follow through on its promises. Eventually, the team took to social media, promising to strike in order to get their compensation.

Not a settlement but a ceasefire

Eventually, things were settled, but more in the nature of a demilitarized zone than a true peace deal. The players remained frustrated, and JFF remained obstinate. The opportunities from the spring dissipated. No more friendlies were scheduled, no more camps made available. Head coach Hue Menzies quit in disgust. The team did regather to breeze through Caribbean pre-qualification—where they scored 37 goals and conceded only one in four matches. But nothing more. As a result, when the team arrived in Edinburg once again, they had not played a game against real competition in five months.

That fact doesn’t completely explain the team’s struggles here, but it certainly has to be part of the story. It imposes significant costs both in terms of cohesion and in terms of mental readiness. According to coach Hubert Busby, “The only way we’re going to get better is to be able to play more games more often, and for us to come together as a group so that we’re not learning and going through mistakes when we’re playing the 8th-ranked team in the world…You’ve got to be able to go away and play some friendlies and come back, and when you come into competitions where you’re actually trying to quality, you have some confidence and continuity in terms of your performance.”

Speaking after their first game loss to Mexico, Chinyelu Asher admitted that lack of games was a problem: “We want to come out strong and just be consistent for an entire tournament, but these are the most minutes that we’re playing together, in game one. Versus having a big camp preparation, with weeks or months for training and getting friendlies in, and working out those kinks. That’s our task. That’s our cross to bear.”

Havana Solaun offered a similar take after the match against St. Kitts and Nevis, saying “It’s hard to only have the opportunity to play together when you’re in a knockout tournament. That’s not the time to stumble. Unfortunately, the only time we have is when we’re on the big stage.”

The second act is always tougher

There can be a depressing predictability to women’s soccer. We’ve seen it so many times. An underfunded program takes a step forward as a generation of quality players rise together. They make a splash on the international scene and for a moment it looks like they’re prepared to truly step up a rank. But at the first slip-up, their federation slinks back into the shadows, funding dries up, and the team drops back to where they were before it all started.

Why didn’t Costa Rica invest enough to give Shirley Cruz a platform to drive them up the ranks? Why didn’t Mexico double down after their shock victory over the US in World Cup qualifying in 2011? Why has Brazil wasted the career of arguably the best player in the history of women’s soccer?

The biggest part of this story is, sadly, the obvious thing: money. What would it take to secure improvement? Investment. Busby spoke strongly to this point in his press conference following their final match in Edinburg: “There’s a massive gap between the Mexicos and Canadas and USAs in terms of financial support. Obviously, our federation is trying to do their part. But really we’re relying a lot on our sponsors, on our ambassador Cedella Marley, who’s played a huge part in helping this program continue. But make no mistake: it really is the ability to finance these games and travel and have extended periods of camp that separates us from the rest right now. Not until we can do those things will we truly understand how far we can go as a program. But unless we’re doing those things, unfortunately, the gap is going to continue between Haves and Have Nots.”

But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the way that money blends with psychology to multiply the difficulty for a team like Jamaica. Because it’s always harder to write a compelling second act. It can be liberating to play as the underdogs. When no one really expects anything, positive results can flow easily and you can ride the wave of enthusiasm. Once you have established yourself, though, it can bring on the weight of expectations. You play a bit more nervous, more tense. The old fluidity can be hard to find.

Jamaica certainly didn’t play poorly against Mexico. They produced the better chances and controlled much of the game. But the final ball never quite materialized; the shots never quite fell. It could have been due to the lack of opportunity to prepare, a bit of nerves, or maybe just the random chance that can bedevil any team. Or maybe a combination of the three.

With that defeat, Jamaica’s dreams effectively died. They would need a clear victory over Canada to hope to advance. And it’s not hard to see their disastrous 9-0 defeat that night as at least partially the result of six months worth of frustration and stress boiling over.

That feels especially true when you consider the plausible story—first reported by Jonathan Tannenwald—that JFF might effectively cancel the program once again if the team failed to qualify for Tokyo.

Imagine how it must feel to constantly be playing for your lives, when you not only have to compete against the other team but also against your own administrators. What kind of pressure does it put on a player?

In the men’s game, there’s an understanding that not every cycle will be good for every team. There is a limited number of spots. By definition not everyone can be happy each time. But there’s no sense that a single failure will so completely disrupt momentum that it could potentially kill the program. For Jamaica, and so many other teams, there’s no such certainty.

What comes next?

Nothing is set in stone. So far, reports remain unconfirmed, and Jamaica’s players and staff remain hopeful. When asked directly about Tannenwald’s reporting, Busby offered some (mild) pushback: “That’s the first I’m hearing of it. To be honest, one of the things we’ve been looking at along with the federation and our ambassador Cedella Marley who’s been very supportive, is the idea that for us to get where we need to go to, we need to play more.”

Several players offered similar comments, with Solaun saying “I don’t have a lot of information about that. We aren’t really communicated with very well as far as what JFF is planning. I think that would be really detrimental.” Asher said that working with the federation has been a process of mutual learning: “We’re all kind of pioneers and this is a new frontier for women’s soccer. Especially for Jamaica, especially for the JFF.”

The consistent theme struck by everyone from Jamaica at this tournament: the team needs more games, more competition, more support. And more communication. But at the moment, their federation has remained quiet.

In the meantime, the players will all return to their clubs, and train, and wait. As McCoy put it: “Obviously nothing is certain at this point, but as players all we can do is just focus on getting results on the field and focus on working hard in training and going back with our respective clubs and improving there, so that when we do have our next tournament, we’re able to show well.”

This team deserves better

Jamaica stands at a crossroads. The talent is there. The motivation is there. But it’s too much to ask any group—even a close-knit and mature one like the current Jamaica squad—to bear this entire weight on their shoulders. This group has inspired so many around the world and back at home. They deserve the certainty that comes from stable, durable support.

The real question is whether the JFF will provide it. And if not, whether CONCACAF or FIFA are willing to do anything to insist on it. To date, federations around the world have suffered no meaningful consequence for dangling their women’s programs by the narrowest of threads. Will anyone step up to enforce real standards? For the sake of this wonderful Jamaica team, we’ll have to hope so.