Jamaica Women, 2015-Present
People in our culture tend to think women shouldn’t be playing football.
I want to change that mentality. I grew up around tough women. Strong women. I understand the power of women and I accept it. I appreciate it.
That’s why, when Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella came to me in 2014, to ask me to take over the Jamaica Women’s national team programme, I told her: “You don’t have to pay me a dime to do this.”
At that time, the Jamaican federation didn’t really care about women’s football. I’m not scared to say that. There was no funding. No league for the girls to play in. The federation wasn’t doing anything for them.
You probably don’t know me – but, if you did, you’d know I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. When people challenge me, that’s when I say: “We need to do this. We need to make this happen.” It’s part of who I am.
Fighting through adversities is something I’ve been doing all my life.
I was 16 when I left Jamaica for the United States. I’d played football at home but I was always more of a cricketer, really. When I moved to the States, that changed. I needed to get a college scholarship, and football was the best way for me to do that.
I ended up playing professionally, but in those days you really didn’t make much money from playing football in the US. So I started coaching a local team to make some extra cash. It wasn’t until years later that I realised coaching would be my true calling, though.
After graduation, I went away from football for a few years to work on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch. But after six years in the corporate world I decided to leave and go into coaching full-time. I wanted to help kids in the same way that I was helped when I moved to the States.
So I went back to school, to get an education degree.
"Female players look you right in the eye, take in everything you’re saying"
I grew up playing for good teachers. I call them that because they’re not coaches – they’re educators. In order to be a proper coach, I think you have to know how to teach. They’re two different things – coaching is the content. Teaching is how you transfer that content to your players.
After a few years of coaching and teaching at high-school level, I had my first experience of coaching females when I got a job as assistant coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of Texas.
Right away, what intrigued me was the listening skills of the female players versus the males. They look you right in the eye and take in everything you’re saying.
In every other way, coaching them was no different to coaching boys. Their thought processes, how competitive they were, how detailed they were in how they trained – they were just footballers.
It was great to be part of such a big university programme, but youth development was where I felt I could make a real difference. Where I felt I could teach more, as opposed to simply ‘managing’ older players. So I set up my own youth club in Texas, which grew to 7,000 kids, and alongside that started working with the US national youth programme.
By the time Cedella came calling in 2014, I was living in Florida and running my own youth academy, called Florida Kraze Krush. Initially, she just asked me to help out the Jamaica head coach Merron Gordon. He was preparing the team for the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which was a qualifier for the 2015 World Cup.
For the last three weeks before the tournament, the team came to my club so they could use the facilities. I didn’t have a specific coaching role, but I oversaw the training sessions and ended up sitting on the bench for the qualifiers.
They only won one of their three games, which wasn’t enough. No Caribbean nation had ever qualified for a Women’s World Cup, and that record was going to stand for at least another four years.
"After that game I told my staff: ‘We may have something going on here’"
That’s when Cedella asked me to take over the programme.
My first call was to my best friend Lorne Donaldson: a legend of the Jamaican national team, my idol growing up, and now director of the Real Colorado soccer programme. I told him that we were going to take over the Jamaican women’s team.
We’d basically be volunteers, but we’re lucky enough to be in situations where, if we don’t get paid, we know we’ll be okay.
The first thing we did was to take the better players out of Jamaica. We put them into schools in the US and lined up places for them at different clubs. I also started a women’s semi-pro summer league in Florida, so the girls would have somewhere to play over the summer.
We tried to keep them playing as much as possible, knowing that in a couple of years the Jamaican federation would come to us asking if we had a team to try and qualify for the next World Cup.
Sure enough, in February 2018 I got a phone call from the federation saying: “We’ve got a qualifier in Haiti in May. Can you put a team together?”
We had a week-long training camp in Florida before heading to Haiti to play Guadeloupe, Martinique and Haiti in the space of four days. Only one team would qualify through to the next round.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Haiti, but it’s... different. Football is really all that people there have, so the stadium is packed. And the turf is 150 degrees hot.
We played Haiti on a sticky evening in Port-au-Prince, with the winner assured of topping the group. The game ended 2-2, but our better goal difference took us through to the next round.
"Panama were on the same track as us. They had the same hopes of qualifying for the first time, and the same no-fear attitude"
A few months later, we took a team to Colombia for the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games. We lost narrowly to Venezuela and Costa Rica (who scored a 94th-minute penalty to win 2-1), but finished with a win against Colombia.
After that game, I told my staff: “We may have something going on here.”
The next round of qualification was in Jamaica, where the women’s team hadn’t played since 2006. We weren’t sure what to expect.
For our first game, around 50 people showed up to see us beat Antigua and Barbuda 9-0. A few days later, those numbers went up to 800 for our game against Bermuda. And they kept on growing – for our game against Trinidad, we had 4,000 people in the stadium.
We won every game. People were saying we played better football than the men.
We call Jamaicans “wagoners”. If you’re bad, they’ll tell you; but, if you’re good, they’ll jump on the bandwagon.
The draw for the final qualification competition put us in a group with Canada, Cuba and Costa Rica, with the top two going through to the semi finals. Canada took first place, with the second spot going to the winner of our match against Costa Rica.
It was a close game, but this time we came out on top. Thanks to a crucial goal from Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, we were into the semi finals to play against the United States.
Not many people were expecting us to make it that far.
The day we flew up to Dallas ahead of the game, we sat down to eat in the hotel. I realised that not a single person serving us spoke English.
I went up to the manager and asked her why they were giving us waiters who couldn’t speak English.
“Aren’t you Costa Rica?”
It turned out Costa Rica had booked the hotel well in advance, believing they’d be there instead of us. I went back to the table and told the players: “It’s just more fuel to the fire, girls.”
"I didn’t have to teach these players anything about battling. For them, it’s like having breakfast in the morning"
We knew the game against the US was going to be a task, so we rested five players, keeping them fresh for the third-place playoff game, which we knew would likely be against Panama – they were playing Canada in the other semi.
If we beat Panama, we’d have a place at the 2019 World Cup.
Panama were on the same track as us. They had the same hopes of qualifying for the first time, and the same no-fear attitude.
All week before the game, I had a strong feeling that it was going to come down to penalties.
It was cold in Dallas, so we spent the week training in high-school domes. But on our last day of preparation, Panama were still in the dome doing a session when we arrived.
There was an outdoor stadium right across the street, though. I told Lorne: “We gotta get these girls used to the cold.” We’d ordered some base layers for them, but they hadn’t arrived yet, so we drove to Costco and bought a load of jackets.
That day, we had the best practice we’d probably ever had.
We finished it with a practice shootout. One of the girls, Dominique Bond-Flasza, was missing all of her kicks. As we were walking away from the field, she grabbed my arm: “Can you give me the ball?” I watched her go back to the spot by herself and bury a kick in the corner of the net.
Back at the hotel that night, I had an even stronger feeling about the penalties. And about how we should play it with the goalkeepers. We’d been starting with Sydney Schneider all week, which had left our other keeper, Nicole McClure a little upset.
I kept telling her that she was going to make an impact. She just had to wait her turn.
That night in the hotel, I told Loren: “We might have to get Nicole ready five minutes before the game’s over. I can just feel it.”
And that’s how it happened in the game (above). After 90 minutes, the score was 1-1. We took the lead five minutes into extra time, but 20 minutes later Panama tied us up. That’s when we made the rotation: Syd off, Nicole on.
My phone was buzzing in my pocket, with people who thought I was crazy.
"We don’t want to go to France just to show up. We want to go and get some results"
After four penalties it was 2-2 – no one was missing. But then it happened: Nicole saved two in a row.
Our final penalty fell to Dominique.
As she stepped up to the ball, a camera guy stood right in front of me. I couldn’t see a thing. But moments later, my assistant coach, Big Hubert Busby, was jumping all over me. Then I knew. We’d done it.
Back in the locker room, the players all started singing the national anthem. The footage from it went viral back home. It showed how the team all came together for a common goal. How everybody had busted their butt to get to that point.
I didn’t have to teach these players anything about battling, though. For them, it’s like having breakfast in the morning. They’ve had to battle for everything all their lives. They don’t need me to yell and scream at them to compete. Knowing that makes life a lot easier for me in tough games.
Throughout our whole journey, I think they also saw the effort that we as a staff were putting in and wanted to reciprocate. We’re volunteers. We don’t get paid; it cost us to do this. We put our own money and our own resources into it. And, over time, they started to pay us back. Started getting good grades. Started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Started to realise that we could do something special here.
For me, qualifying for the World Cup was a relief, but I knew there was more work to be done. We don’t want to go to France just to show up. We want to go and get some results. Right off the bat, I started to think about what the roster would look like. What this would do for women in Jamaica. Kids in Jamaica. Little girls in Jamaica.
Because this is not about France. It’s about building a sustainable programme. Building a league in Jamaica. Sustaining youth teams. We don’t want to go to one World Cup and then have everything just stop. We want to have a programme that means we’ll be at the next one, too. And the same for our younger teams.
After we qualified, Lorne and I went back to Jamaica to run a little grassroots clinic. We normally get about 20 kids coming down. This time, we had 120. Things are blossoming. It’s exactly what we wanted. What we’ve been working for.
I’ve said all along that this is about more than football. Way more. It’s not even close to being about football.
Football is just the avenue. The platform. We need to use and abuse it to help women and girls in Jamaica. To change mindsets.
You probably don’t know me – but, if you did, you’d know that’s the kind of challenge I’ve been thriving on all my life.
Author: Tony Hodson