There are perhaps only a handful of musicians to whom the epithet “legend” truly applies, and a couple of them are called Bob.
Bob Marley is a transcendent figure, an international icon who continues to be embraced all over the world. It is safe to assume that his music will outlive just about everyone and everything that has been influenced by it. Born on his grandfather’s farm in 1945 in Nine Mile, Saint Ann parish, Jamaica, Robert Nesta Marley would grow up to create music that crossed borders and cultural divides in ways that would make him a truly global phenomenon and an abiding presence on planet Earth far beyond his short span of years.
That he made such a massive cultural impact while working within the somewhat limiting structures of reggae—an at-the-time new musical genre hailing from a tiny country that wasn’t exactly at the center of mainstream popular culture—makes his legacy all the more staggering. Apart from the music that flowed through him, there are a number of other cultural touchstones that will always be associated with Marley, and one of them is unquestionably the game of soccer.
It would appear, on photographic evidence alone, that whether in the studio or on the road, a soccer ball was never far from his feet. There are countless photographs of the Wailers playing in parking lots, fields, and even inside recording studios, but Marley’s passion for the game seems to have run deeper than that of a mere hobby. Soccer played a major role in his life, and remains a significant part of his legacy.
An avid fan of the game, he followed the Brazilian club Santos devotedly, and had a deep admiration for Pele in particular. Marley surrounded himself with soccer people throughout his career, even making Alan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s most celebrated player, his tour manager for much of the 1970s. Cole had played in the North American Soccer League for the Atlanta Chiefs, and his presence no doubt helped integrate soccer into the day-to-day routines that comprised life on the road for the Wailers and their entourage. Marley, by all accounts, was always looking for an excuse to play, and told one journalist “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me and the Wailers.”
He often sought opportunities to play at a more serious level than the impromptu kick-arounds that were the trademark of his touring life, however, and he took part in a number of formally organized games with other musicians, journalists, and even some professional players—one of whom was Paulo Cezar Caju of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning squad. It was one of these games that led to the injury that would alert him to the melanoma that would ultimately take his life.
The level of Marley’s prowess on a soccer pitch is debatable and there are varying opinions on the matter. Some say he could have played professionally if he had made it his focus; others are less generous. What is irrefutable is the level of his passion for the sport. It was something he refused to live without. “Football is freedom” he stated in an interview with French television, also describing the game as “a whole world, a whole universe.” His dedication to the game is one aspect of his legacy that has lived on in his family.
This summer, Marley’s eldest daughter, Cedella, spearheaded a campaign to make Jamaica’s national women’s soccer team the first Caribbean team to compete at the Women’s World Cup. The team, though supported by the Jamaica Football Federation, lacked funding for basic training and travel, but has now, through a successful Indiegogo campaign, raised $51,522 in funding for the qualification stages of the 2015 tournament.
That Cedella was at the forefront of the effort is a fitting tribute to the depth of her father’s love for the game and for the Jamaican people. He was a voice for the voiceless, and he could not live without soccer in his life. That the women of his country were without the basic resources to play the game competitively surely would have been a cause worthy of his attention.
Marley’s legend will only grow, and over time he will become more mythical, more iconic than human, but for those who wish to know something of the man, for those who wish to find a path into the heart that wrote One Love and Stir it Up and Redemption Song, there are some leads to follow, and one of them is without a doubt the game of soccer. Whether he saw in it the same power to bring people together that exists in music, or whether it was simply another form of expression, he made it a part of his life, a part of who he was as a human being.