Late afternoon in Dallas and the Toyota Stadium in the city’s suburbs is all but empty. Dotted around an otherwise sweep of vacant red and blue seats are a few hundred fans.
In the lower bleachers, looking like the first specks of a pointillist painting, some supporters are wearing plastic ponchos, protecting themselves from the drizzling rain on what is a chilly October Wednesday. Though they create sound, the cheers and the cries are largely swallowed up into the ether.
The majority of ticket-holders have yet to filter into the 20,000-seat arena for that evening’s top-billed match between the US and Canadian national women’s teams. It means only the few experience the drama and the history unfolding on the pitch as Jamaica and Panama engage in a stomach-churning penalty shootout.
“No one was paying attention to us, so to speak, but it really wasn’t about anything else but us,” Jamaica goalkeeper Nicole McClure tells CNN Sport, remembering the match which would alter the course of women’s football in her country.
Deadlocked at 2-2 after 120 minutes, there was only one way to resolve the high-stakes third-place playoff which would determine which team would qualify for the Women’s World Cup in France. The winner, indeed, taking it all.
Jamaica had already been bold, bringing on McClure especially for the shootout. She and her teammates had practiced spot-kicks throughout the week. Was this shootout destiny or an example of how well prepared the squad was? Perhaps both.
Four penalties in and no one has yet missed. Pulses quicken. Panama’s Lineth Cedeno steps up, directs her effort at an obliging height and McClure saves but there is no wild celebration from the team’s unflappable substitute goalkeeper. Instead, she calmly tells herself that she must save another. “The first save I felt something. I would say something within myself,” she recalls.
Kenia Rangel, Panama’s fourth penalty taker, places the ball on the white spot 12 yards from goal. She shoots to her left, McClure dives low, her outstretched hand making contact with the ball. Save. Jamaica is on verge of becoming the first Caribbean island to qualify for the biggest tournament in the women’s game.
Supporters continue to filter into the stadium. The majority of the Jamaican team look as if they’re on trampolines, bouncing on the halfway line in an attempt to contain the butterflies as Dominique Bond-Flasza prepares to take the penalty which could make history.
Walking towards the penalty spot, the PSV defender decides where to place her shot. To the right, towards the top corner. “You know what to do,” she tells herself, before taking a deep breath. Though there are nerves, she does not fear failure because she has not contemplated missing. “I just went for it,” Bond-Flasza tells CNN Sport.
The ball flies into the net.
Against the odds, after cuts in funding, after disbandment, after hearing naysayers opine that women couldn’t and shouldn’t play football, Jamaica’s women qualify for the Women’s World Cup for the first time in the country’s history.
The 22-year-old Bond-Flasza, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and Polish father, starts running towards her teammates before turning on her heels, switching direction to sprint towards McClure after noticing her goalkeeper is not among the yellow swarm racing towards her.
“I don’t think a single thought was going through my head other than World Cup! World Cup! World Cup!” recalls Bond-Flasza, who was engulfed by her teammates, buried at the bottom of a heap of unbridled joy after they eventually caught her. “I couldn’t believe what we’d just accomplished.”
‘I’m not here for money and accolades’
Jamaica’s head coach Hue Menzies did not see Bond-Flasza’s penalty because a cameraman was in his sight line, but he did not need a bird’s-eye view to know the right-back had scored. The force of his 6 feet 4 inch, 270-pound goalkeeping coach jumping on his back in a sugar-rush of emotion told Menzies all he needed to know.
Anyway, he had never doubted his players. “We had confidence,” he tells CNN Sport. “Some of these players come from very adverse situations. When you’re dealing with that, you don’t feel a difficult situation like that is going to jolt them.”
An American-based soccer coach who moved to Jamaica after living the first four years of his life in England, Menzies describes himself as a “mommy’s boy.” With his father having left the family when he was young, he was brought up by a mom who, he says, had to be both a mother and a father. “A strong-minded woman,” is how he describes her, his respect unbounded.
It is partly because of the influence and strength of the women in his life, his mom, his grandmother, that Menzies has devoted himself to lifting his country’s female players from the depths of disbandment to the highs of World Cup qualification.
For all his time and commitment, for all his passion, despite his role in his country’s soccer history, neither Menzies or his coaching staff have ever been paid by the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF). But, the Jamaican insists, he is not coaching for financial reward.
His mission has never solely been to improve how Jamaica’s women play the beautiful game.
“It’s way more than football what we’re trying to do here,” says Menzies, an eloquent progressive who is taking care of his sick mother while juggling commitments with the Reggae Girlz and his paid role as executive director of Florida Kraze Krush (FKK), a successful youth soccer organization in Orlando, Florida.
“We’re not talking about football, we’re talking about culture, about how they perceive females playing football, so we have to change the mindset of people in Jamaica to understand that female football is just as exciting, that the opportunities are there for them and it gives hope to all those young females on the island to get somewhere in life.
“We’ve got to keep plugging, we can’t let all these obstacles stop us from what we’re doing.”
To say Jamaica’s success owes much to Menzies’ vision and passion would be an understatement. When the JFF had little interest in organizing international matches for its female footballers, Menzies ensured the country’s most promising players had a pathway, had hope.
In 2008, funding was cut and the women’s senior team was disbanded. Six years later, Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, attempted to fix things by becoming an ambassador and sponsor through the Bob Marley Foundation, raising just enough for the team to re-form. But in 2016, the federation disbanded the team again.
Cedella, who lives in America, redoubled her efforts, convincing Alessandra Lo Savio, co-founder of the Alacran Foundation, to become a major contributor.
“Big up to Cedella Marley for putting her neck on the line for us,” Menzies told reporters immediately after the shootout win in Dallas. But perhaps her greatest act was persuading Menzies to coach the team because, in truth, it took some convincing.
“She told me her purpose. A large part of it is her dad’s love for the game and, second of all, she wanted to inspire young females in Jamaica,” explains Menzies, who gave up a career in corporate finance to become a full-time soccer coach.
“At the time, the program was in a downward situation. She helped create some type of positive vibe. When she talked about the impact it could have on the kids, the culture, the mindset, I said ‘I’m in’ because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not here for money and accolades, I’m just here to change the mindsets of people.”
Disbandment, strategies, phone calls
Were it not for Menzies’ foresight, ensuring Jamaica’s most promising young talents were given opportunities to play in the States when the country’s women’s league was disbanded in 2015 and the national team lay dormant, it is difficult to envision how Jamaica, nicknamed the Reggae Girlz, could have successfully negotiated a qualifying campaign.
The break up of the women’s league was, says Menzies, a “blessing in disguise” as it gave him the freedom to formulate a long-term strategy which has resulted in the development of world talents such as forwards Khadija Shaw and Jody Brown
“I had all our players playing. Younger players, we were putting them in boarding schools and so forth, so yeah, there were things in place. We were sitting there waiting to see when we were going to get that phone call,” he says.
Two years ago, Jamaica’s women were unranked by FIFA, the sport’s governing body, because the national team had not played since its failure to qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Despite the inactivity, Menzies said he knew the JFF would eventually ask him to form a team for the 2019 World Cup qualifying campaign because FIFA was putting pressure on every national federation to support the women’s game.