From skimming his lyrics, or even just the titles of his numerous back catalogue of songs, it soon becomes clear that the idea of freedom was central to Bob Marley, his attitude perhaps being no better summed up than with his famous quote: “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”.
Given that in another of his quotes he claimed that “football is freedom”, it would appear that one of the ways reggae’s greatest son chose to emancipate himself was by simply kicking a ball around with his friends, bandmates and on occasion, complete strangers.
The link between Marley and football has only added to the many mythical aspects of his life since his premature death in 1981, but many of the stories that link the Jamaican to his favourite game are far from myth.
Below are just some of the ways that Marley influenced football during his short time with us, and a couple of examples of how he continues to influence the game even today.
Born in the rural region of Nine Mile, Marley experienced a variety of hardships growing up in what was a generally volatile and poverty-stricken area. Further complicated by the fact that he was mixed race, from an early age football was seen as an outlet through which Marley could express himself.
But beyond being an outlet for self-expression, playing football also fostered a necessary toughness in Marley and his childhood friends, especially after a move to Trenchtown, in Kingston, at the age of 12. While playing football for the Boy’s Town team was seen as an alternative from the violence that swept Trenchtown, matters on the pitch could at times be just as violent.
It was whilst riding these challenges on the sandy pitches of Trenchtown that a childhood friend claims that Marley was first given his ‘Tuff Gong’ nickname, because much like the lyrics of his song years later, the only way to survive on those pitches was to get up and stand up.
The toughness these games instilled in Marley would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life, as would his love of playing with the ball. Perhaps fortunately for the millions of fans that still listen to his music today, his skills on the pitch – talented as he was – always came second to music, but he still ensured that football remained a central part of his life.
KICK ABOUTS IN BATTERSEA PARK
As we all know, Marley’s choice to take the musical path led to some of the most revered music of the 20th century, as he brought reggae and ska to mainstream audiences around the world. Inevitably, world tours followed, and amongst the drums and guitars, the amps and the basses that filled his tour buses, there was always a ball. Pick-up games were a regular occurrence at each venue, as Marley challenged local teams, reporters looking for an interview or even fellow performers. And in the absence of any of those, the Jamaican was even known to be content with just playing by himself, doing keepy-ups to relax him before gigs.
When he and the Wailers were confined to their hotel room, they would instead turn to the game of moneyball. Explaining the game, Bob’s friend, Neville Garrick, said “Moneyball is the ball we play in the hotel. So we juggle it. And why it named moneyball is if you break anything you have to pay for it”. It becomes more and more apparent with each story that football was not a choice for Marley and those who travelled with him, but a prerequisite.
One of the most famous of these pick-up games came during his stay in London. Living just minutes from Stamford Bridge, Marley instead preferred the fields that made up Battersea Park. Accompanied by his band, The Wailers, Marley would challenge local teams they met there, with one such occasion being captured by photographer Adrien Boot, as the band took on a team made up of Island Records employees. His shots show some of the most famous images of Marley, with his ‘M’ branded tracksuit tucked into his socks and iconic Copa Mundials on his feet.
The thought now of a global superstar roaming the parks of London, looking for a game of football feels almost unthinkable, but through Marley’s tours this was simply the norm. For him, these games were exercises of fitness, relaxation and fun – although the games likely maintained the physical edge he had learned from Boys Town.
“JAMAICA CHEERS FOR BRAZIL”
While London and his native Jamaica would form the main bases for Marley and his pick-up games when not touring, it was in South America that his true football passion lay.
Inspired partly by his manager, Allan Cole, a former Jamaican international football player whose career included a stint in Brazil with Nàutico, and, as so many others were, by the mercurial talents of Pele, Marley supported Santos. On the international stage, due to Jamaica’s lack of qualification, it was Pele’s Brazil that gained the support of Marley.
But those who knew him suggest that the link runs even deeper. “The music, the culture, the food, the women,” listed his eldest daughter, Cedella Marley. “It kind of feels like a little bit of Jamaica. And I think that was what just made him love that country”.
So with such strong links between the two nations, it feels inevitable that those from Jamaica would follow Brazil. But his friend, Garrick, claims that for Marley it was more than just a love for Brazil that drew him to cheer them on at the World Cup. It was the “samba football” and the “flair”. Few nations’ style of play is designed to mimic a rhythmic dance, and so it seems fitting that one of music’s greats would follow a nation that does choose such an identity.
But Argentinian football, too, appeared to catch his attention following the 1978 World Cup in the South American country. With a tour of North America and Europe planned for that year, Marley ensured that the dates were scheduled as such that he would be able to watch the tournament.
After the Argentinians won, Marely was said to be enamoured by how they played, and so when Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles arrived at Tottenham the following season, the reggae star had a new team to follow. While there are no official records or photos of Marley at a game, Ardiles has since said that he knew Marley was a Spurs fan.
With Marley having openly supported two nations with a combined seven World Cups between them, many of which were won with a specific style of play, it highlights the musician’s attitude to how the game should be played. He enjoyed the beautiful exuberance of Brazil’s talented players, but was also likely reminded of the tough games he played growing up in Trenchtown when he watched the Argentinians storm to victory in 1978 courtesy of a well drilled and resilient team.
THREE LITTLE BIRDS
Despite the love of football that is shown in his frequent pick-up games and determination to not miss the biggest matches, Marley always maintained that he was a musician first. So despite all of his achievements, both prior to and following his tragic death, few would likely compare to the way in which one of his most famous songs has become synonymous with one of football’s biggest clubs.
In July 2008, at the Cardiff City stadium, Cardiff and Ajax had just drawn 0-0 in a drab and at times ill-tempered pre-season friendly. Boisterous as always, the travelling Ajax fans were unhappy at being asked to stay in the stadium for a period of time after the full-time whistle, and so in an effort to calm things down the stadium DJ, Ali Yassine, started to play Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’.
Yassine’s choice of sign proved a hit, as the Dutch fans began belting the song out loudly, seeming to enjoy this sing-along more than the game they had just witnessed. From that moment on, the song slowly grew more and more into the consciousness of the Ajax fans at the Johan Cruyff Arena, with its soothing tones and joyful lyrics offering an incredible juxtaposition to the ferocity and anxiety that can come with supporting your team.
To this day, the song is still sung by the Ajax faithful, and tifos of Marley adorn sections of the support during games. For a man who loved football, and a certain kind of football, he would likely have been proud that such an illustrious club would adopt one of his songs as their own.
FOOTBALL IS STILL FREEDOM
Tragically, though, Marley will never know the impact that he and his music has on Ajax fans today, or on football as a whole. Instead, that honour is known by those who have carried on his work, most notably his children.
Ky-mani, the second youngest of Marley’s 11 children, visited the Johan Cruyff Arena in 2018, and led the home fans in a rendition of Three Little Birds. “To be able to hear so many people at the Ajax stadium at half-time sing Three Little Birds,” Ky-mani said, “would mean so much to him (Bob)”. His father may never have been able to witness the song reverberate around the Dutch capital, but for Ky-mani, Ajax will now always golf a special place in his heart. “It’s Ajax, that’s my team. From now until the day my number’s called.”
Ky-mani’s older sister, Cedella Marley, has also ensured that the Marley family stay involved in football after her father’s passing. While Jamiaca never enjoyed much global footballing success during her father’s lifetime, Cedella has set out to change that. Upon finding out in 2014 that the Jamaican Women’s national team – nicknamed the Reggae Girlz – was disbanded due to a lack of funding, Cedella injected her own money to allow them to come together again, and also became a global ambassador for the team.
To the dismay of Cedella and so many other women in Jamaica, failure to qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup meant yet another cut in funding. Undeterred, more money was raised, and against all odds, the Reggae Girlz rose to earn a place at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Cedella said that her only goal was to give the women on the team “the opportunity to do something they really loved”. With her help and support, the women’s game in Jamaica is now reaching a stage where all women can be afforded similar opportunities in football, as talks have begun about a national women’s league.
“Daddy would have been the girls’ no. 1 supporter,” Cedella told Bleacher Report. “And like he said, ‘football is freedom’, and the girls are actually now free to play this beautiful game”.
So, almost 40 years after his death, Bob Marley’s presence can still be felt in the game, and thanks to his undying passion, his family look likely to continue that legacy, both in football and beyond.