If you are into underdogs, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup has several teams you can root for, but Jamaica stands out for defeating all odds to even qualify.
Dubbed the “Reggae Girlz”, the story also has the backing of Cedella Marley, daughter of Bob Marley, to add into the mix as the Jamaican Football Federation has denied them funding on multiple occasions while choosing to allocate all funds to the men’s team. FIFA has come under scrutiny for not providing enough oversight in regulating how funds can be used by federations and hopefully more media attention will add pressure for equal funding for the Reggae Girlz.
While the team is ranked 53rd in the world and dead last among the 24 teams at the tournament, everybody is rooting for them, so much so that head coach Hue Menzies called them “the darlings of the World Cup” in a pre-match press conference.
Some say that just making it to the world’s biggest stage is enough for the Reggae Girlz, but they are hungry for more. For the first half in their first World Cup game ever against Brazil, they had everyone wondering if they could pull off a win or a draw against heavily favoured Brazil. Using open-play expected goals as a guide, Jamaica had had chances worth 0.22 expected goals and limited Brazil to just 0.45.
Even though Jamaica ending up losing the match, their first at a World Cup, 3-0, the Reggae Girlz made a good showing of themselves.
Goalkeeper Sydney Schneider, a 19-year-old American college student with grandparents who were born in Jamaica, made headlines for keeping her team in the game and successfully saving a penalty attempt from Andressa. With penalties generally converted 75-80% of the time, saving one is no mean feat, and Italy’s Laura Giuliani had seen that even saving the first attempt isn’t always enough.
Sometimes saving a penalty isn't enough: shots faced by Laura Giulani between 20-25 minutes vs Australia
Australia’s Sam Kerr swept up the rebound in that match, but Schneider not only guessed correctly which direction to go but also stopped the shot with a softer touch and got up quickly to wrap up the ball before anyone else could get to it.
A former striker who was first thrown into the net when she was 14 or 15 years old, Schneider is from a New Jersey town not far from USWNT star Carli Lloyd’s hometown. Before the tournament, the gap in stardom between the World Cup winner and soon-to-be World Cup debutant will have been monumental; now, it’s Schneider who’s made headlines.
Hue Menzies praised Schneider in his post-match press conference, saying: “Sydney had a stellar game. I told our team in the locker room that Sydney really saved us a lot, not just from embarrassment, but she was really there for us and we need to respond to those things. When your goalkeeper is pulling things out for us, you’ve got to respond to that.”
Unfortunately, embarrassment is a real possibility at this World Cup, the United States’ record 13-0 victory over Thailand a notable example. Jamaica struggled too, despite keeping the scoreline respectable; Brazil took 17 shots with six on target and maintained 62% of ball possession. The total expected goals highlights the disparity, Brazil finishing on chances worth 2.30 expected goals, Jamaica on just 0.41.
For Schneider’s part, she said that she was just doing her job and wished she could’ve helped her team more. Her coach praised her goalkeeping intelligence but wants her to be more vocal with the backline to provide more leadership.
But as for what it would take for Jamaica to get a positive result against a Group C consisting of Brazil, Italy and Australia, there’s just one word: Bunny.
“We haven’t seen the best of Bunny Shaw,” Jamaica’s head coach said.
While Schneider may have grabbed the headlines after their first match, Jamaica’s 5’11” centre forward Khadija Shaw, who goes by the nickname ‘Bunny’, is usually the star. Both players ended up impressing at American universities, but Bunny Shaw had a much more difficult path to get there.
Shaw grew up in an inner-city community of Jamaica where three of her brothers have been killed due to gang-related violence. “Jamaica is not the same as a lot of places in the world but violence is everywhere,” she has said, “so you just have to try and make what's best for you. That's what helped us get through it.”
Bunny finds solace in football and gave the world a preview of what she is capable of in a recent friendly against Scotland where she scored a brace, leading her team to an impressively close game against the Scots in their own backyard. The Reggae Girlz showed up to the pitch right before the match started because of cancelled flights and lost luggage but still found a way to be up 1-0 in the beginning of the first half, although Scotland eventually rallied to win 3-2.
Coach Menzies said after the match against Brazil that he wished the team could’ve gotten Bunny Shaw more involved in the second half. He also said that Jamaica couldn’t find midfielder Havana Solaun so that she could connect to Shaw up top and he had to give credit to Brazil for being committed to defending their lines and blocking off her options.
Passing networks highlight this struggle to find Solaun in the second half. In the first period, the right-sided central midfielder was one of the most advanced players on the team.
After the break, her average position was far deeper, and Solaun was eventually substituted in the 71st minute.
The story is similar with Shaw. The striker managed three shots, all of which were on target, in the first half. After half-time, she didn’t have a single attempt on goal.
Still, as a focal point and driving force in the attack, Shaw proved her worth, winning four aerial duels and completing five successful dribbles during the match. Shaw has 31 goals in 24 international caps, so be on the lookout for her to possibly score against Italy on Friday and against Australia next Tuesday.
Despite the loss, Menzies believes that many of the mistakes his team made in the first game are “fixable” and that Jamaica can still make it to the top two of Group C, especially after Australia’s loss to Italy. “We feel, athletically we can match up with a lot of these teams,” he said. He thinks the players were dealing with a lot of nerves of being in their first World Cup game and wants to focus on analyzing film to get the players to read the game a little quicker than their opponents.
As for how Menzies is going to prep Bunny Shaw going forward: “We are going to push her a little bit. I do believe she is going to respond to that.”
Jamaica, and the mass of fans that the Reggae Girlz are attracting, will be hoping that all the pieces come together for Bunny to show the world what she and her team are fully capable of.
Rachel Rose Gold started playing soccer at the age of 5. She follows Everton, USWNT, WSL, England Lionesses, and basically anything related to women's football. You can find her on Twitter @RachelRoseGold_.