Jamaica | Spreading Ja love from the left wing

Ali G, the edgy hip-hop persona of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, offers this rhyme:

I am Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Put down your gun
and listen to Bob Marley.

Kate Simon spent several
years taking pictures of Marley:
“You had to prove you
were worthy of his time.”
(© Kate Simon)

Listening to Bob Marley has been the theme at the monthlong Africa Unite celebration of Marley’s 60th birthday in Addis Ababa. We are disappointed, but not surprised, that organizers canceled a match scheduled between the Ethiopian national team and world all-stars on Feb 9.

Fixture congestion has become serious with league, cup, Champions League, international matches and, earlier this week, with the Football for Hope match for tsunami relief.

Marley’s connections with football have been well-documented. He played as a midfielder, usually on the left, and seems often to have engaged journalists through football. Paul Alessandrini, for example, a French journalist, tells Marco Virgona of bobmarleymagazine.com that he had once tried to interview Marley after a show in Amsterdam, but did not have success until proposing a soccer match.

I proposed to play soccer during his next visit in Paris [May 1977]. The interview was published in Rock & Folk magazine. In 1992, when I visited Hope Road in Kingston, that cover (and my interview) was hung on the wall of [Marley's] house. We played soccer on a synthetic ground next to Hilton Hotel in Paris and the Tour Eiffel. There were the Wailers, four or five rock critics and a team with actors, artists and Francis Borrel, at that time the president of Paris St. Germain. We won 4–0. I saw Bob again in 1980 in Kingston. … We again played soccer in the yard. He said: “Football is music.”

The May 1977 match in Paris, if accounts are accurate, is significant for another reason. Before halftime Marley had to leave with a recurring injury to his toe. The toe problem continued to nag him and, disregarding advice from doctors, Marley declined treatment. (Other accounts have Marley injuring his toe during another game in Britain, also in 1977.) He continued to play football, however, and made a much-celebrated trip to Brazil in March 1980 (Leo Vidigal, “Bob Marley in Brazil,” rootzreggae.com).

The visit was to help launch a record label. Marley did not perform but played football at the home of Brazilian music legend and writer Chico Buarque. Marley received a Pelé Santos jersey and led an attacking side that won 3–0. “Rivelino, Jairzinho, Pelé … Brazil is my team,” Marley said. “Jamaica likes soccer because of Brazil.”

It is not known when Marley last played football. What turned out to be cancerous growth in his foot spread to his lungs and brain. Marley died in Miami on 11 May 1981, sometimes watching football tapes with friends during the illness. He was 36 when he died.

Official site of Africa Unite at the Bob Marley Foundation

Africa Unite featured
cinema, art, seminars
and, of course, music
… but not football.

We would welcome a correction, but it appears that Marley never addressed football in his music, despite his remark that “football is music.” He also said that “football is freedom,” and freedom appears to have resonated with Marley—who in darker moments, according to biographer Christopher John Farley, worked in an auto plant in Wilmington, Delaware, calling himself “Donald.”

This was during a time of professional disputes in the Jamaican music scene, but Marley returned to sing the tenets of Rastafarianism, of the exodus to Ethiopia, the faith’s spiritual home. “He wanted everything at the same time,” said Bono at Marley’s 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “and was everything at the same time: prophet, soul rebel, Rastaman, herbsman, wild man, a natural mystic man, ladies man, island man, family man, Rita’s man, soccer man, showman, shaman, human, Jamaican.”

Bono refers to Marley’s wife, Rita Marley, who headed the celebrations in Ethiopia. Asking “how can you give up a continent for an island?” Rita Marley has emphasized the lure of Africa to her husband, even suggesting that his body be relocated to Shashemene, where former Ethiopian emperor and Rasta deity Haile Selassie donated property for a Rastafarian settlement. Reggae and the Rastas, according to various researchers, were looked down upon among the authorities in Jamaica.

Marley was born poor in Nine Mile and grew up in a slum in west Kingston, Trenchtown, a housing estate constructed after a 1951 hurricane. According to the Guardian‘s Gary Younge (“Bad Vibes as Tug-of-Love Hits Marley Anniversary,” Feb 5), Marley was far from celebrated at home during much of his life. He survived an assassination attempt in 1976. His legend on the island has been primarily a posthumous phenomenon, encouraged by the embrace in which the world holds Marley’s songs.

Tadele Tessema

son of
who joined St.
George FC
at 14.

And Marley no doubt would be pleased at another comeback: that of the Ethiopian national side, which has risen 20 places in the FIFA rankings after winning the CECAFA (East and Central Africa) Cup last December.

The nation, appropriate to its association with Marley, has a progressive background in football, having established mixed-race sides after a reconciliation match between St. George football club and Italian nationals following liberation in 1942. In 1957, the African football confederation (CAF) formed with Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and South Africa (for the time being) as original members. It is believed to have been the first pan-African institution. Ethiopia has hosted the African Cup of Nations twice, winning in 1962, but had been in decline until the recent success. Marley would have been able to soak in this history himself during a planned tour of Africa with Stevie Wonder in 1981, but the tour never took place.

Our lingering image is that of the football-obsessed Marley, as recounted by record-company publicist Rob Partridge, during a string of rehearsals and interviews in the UK in 1978. A World Cup match came on television. “He sat down in front of the TV and after 10 minutes it was obvious he wasn’t going to move,” says Partridge. “That was the end of it.”


Footballers, too, often have affection for Marley. As an example, consider Ezra Hendrickson of new Major League Soccer side Chivas USA. During his days with the Los Angeles Galaxy, the native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines wore a Bob Marley T-shirt underneath his jersey. Of his adjustment to Chivas, Hendrickson said, “I brought four Marley CDs with me and we listen to them all in the locker room” (Paul Gutierrez, “Hendrickson Welcomed Home with New Team,” Los Angeles Times, 27 Feb 05).


The 25th anniversary of Marley’s death passed on 11 May 06 with remembrances from the site of Marley’s crypt in Nine Mile (Jacqueline Charles, “The Years Can’t Lessen Marley’s Mystique, Fame,” Miami Herald, 8 Mar 06) and concerning the song “One Love” (“Bob Marley’s Music and Magic Endure,” National Public Radio, 11 May 06).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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