Women's World Cup: 'It's way more than football' -- Jamaica's remarkable journey to France 2019

Jamaica is the first Caribbean country to qualify for the Women's World Cup.

(CNN)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.

    I don't think a single thought was going through my head other than World Cup! World Cup! World Cup!

    Dominique Bond-Flasza
    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.
    Bond-Flasza celebrates scoring the penalty which saw Jamaica qualify for France 2019.
    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."
    Bond-Flasza and McClure revel in victory.

    '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."

    We're earning our respect, we haven't got it, we're earning it.

    Hue Menzies
    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.
    "We can't let all these obstacles stop us from what we're doing," says Menzies.
    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."
    "Big up to Cedella Marley for putting her neck on the line for us."
    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.
    Jamaica's forward Khadija Shaw (right) is expected to make an impact in France.
    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.
    Late last year, the governing body announced a five-pronged global strategy to grow the game, one being to ensure all 211 members have comprehensive women's plans in place by 2022.
    In February 2018, three months before the opening qualifier, Menzies received the call he had been waiting for.
    "I always knew we were going to have this phone call so even though our program was disbanded, I knew the qualifiers was coming around and the way FIFA was handling the adjustment for female football around the world, I knew the federation here had to figure out a way to get the team on the field or they won't get more funding," Menzies explains.
    The Reggae Girlz played South Africa in an international friendly earlier this year.

    The road to France

    Having not played an international match since a 2-1 defeat by Guyana in November 2015, the Reggae Girlz played Barbados and Cuba in April 2018 before starting their World Cup qualification campaign in May.
    It got off to a bright start with a thumping 13-0 win over Guadeloupe in the opening match, followed by a 3-0 victory over Martinique and a draw with Haiti. Victories continued, against Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba before, to no one's surprise, the team lost to Canada.
    But it was the match two days after the defeat by Canada, a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in Texas last October, which gave the team belief they could achieve what many had felt impossible.
    "Going into the tournament without a lot of preparation was a little nerve-wracking but a lot of the girls are passionate about the sport," says Bond-Flasza.
    "When you're able to win a match like that against Costa Rica, you build this sense of confidence and a sense of: I actually belong here, and perhaps we can really do something with this, perhaps we can really qualify for the World Cup.
    "That win against Costa Rica was a big turning point for us."

    Celebratory cakes and bus parades

    Days after celebrating with teammates and singing the national anthem in a Dallas dressing room, it is time for McClure to return to reality.
    She is traveling back to her club in Sweden and, despite her protests that she does not need to be driven to training, her goalkeeping coach collects her from the bus station and takes her to the training ground in Sundsvalls, a town nearly 400 kilometers (248 miles) north of Stockholm.
    As she approaches the dressing room, she can hear Bob Marley being played loudly enough for the whole of Sweden to hear.
    "They surprised me with a cake in Jamaican colors," McClure recalls of her teammates' welcoming party. "It's been a very warm reception since qualification."
    "I hope we can shock the world," says McClure.
    In December, the players were paraded on a bus tour of Jamaica.
    From Montego Bay to Saint Catherine Parish, Kingston and Trench Town, the team, which is doing much to challenge stifling gender norms, was lauded.
    "It was very gratifying, and it speaks volumes about the diversity in our team," said Menzies. "We have kids of affluence and kids of struggle. That was a very good celebration. We also had a couple of concerts for us and a banquet with the Prime Minister."
    He jokes: "People I haven't heard from in years are my best friends now."

    'Earning respect'

    Menzies says the government has stuck to its promise of providing financial assistance. The Minister for Sport, Olivia Grange, whom the players affectionately refer to as "Auntie Babsy," is making sure the team has been "taken care of," says Menzies.
    There are sponsors on board now, too, and a women's league exists, albeit only for two months a year, but there is still much work to be done. After all, society can be slow to change.
    Jamaica will be the lowest ranked team competing at France 2019.
    "We're going to the World Cup. Does it open the door for sponsorships? Does it open the doors for professional clubs that has male teams to go ahead and start a women's team?" Menzies asks.
    "We're hoping that this World Cup experience, and everything that we're going through, is going to provide some of that for these players. Our attitude is to go there and get results. We look at it as a challenge, a challenge to show the world that we can compete at that level, that stage and that platform.
    "Qualifying was important but we have a bigger picture that we want to fix. We're earning our respect, we haven't got it, we're earning it."

    'I hope we can shock the world'

    Reaching the World Cup, where Jamaica will be the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, is not the conclusion of the story.
    Though the tale may not necessarily have a happily-ever-after ending there is a determination within the camp to prove people wrong in France or, as McClure puts it, to "shut up the haters and the naysayers."
      "I hope we can shock the world," says the goalkeeper. "Like with anything, everyone isn't going to support what we're doing. For me, that's motivation to do even better. I hear the word no and I say 'Oh, yeah, then watch me.'"
      If you have spent years following your dream with little support, if you have excelled despite the snorts of derision from some compatriots, the fire will never die.