How Bob Marley’s love of football made the game beautiful

How Bob Marley’s love of football made the game beautiful

His dense, dreaded hair was covered by the tam that he was rarely seen without and that had since become symbolic of reggae Jamaica in the Western world. Draped over the casket was the green, black and gold Jamaican flag, his country of birth that he had helped put on the map.

As his casket was lowered down, he was buried with the possessions that had the most meaning and value to him in his life. His red Gibson guitar, a bud of marijuana, a Bible and a football. It was all there: religion, music and football, Bob Marley’s vital components. Separate yet all intricately linked. 

Even during his funeral service, his ability to unite two opposing forces was clear. Prime Minister Edward Seaga of the Jamaican Labour Party read out his remembrance speech and Leader of the Opposition Michael Manley, representing the People’s National Party, read the second lesson. It was 23 May 1981. Three years prior, at the One Love Peace Concert, Marley had the two fierce rivals on stage and joined them by the hand.

Although fighting continued after that concert, they were back once again in the great man’s name. Seaga, in his eulogy to the singer, read: “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an inedible imprint with each encounter.” Watching videos of Marley perform, the shows conjure a sense of religious ecstasy, as if Tuff Gong was channelling an otherworldly force. His audience was blissfully complicit. He was a lightning rod for warring factions, yet seemed weightless under the pressure.

It’s true: Bob Marley was an experience. Pure joy, mostly. Music was certainly his first love and how we’ll remember him, but he had another passion that gave him as much joy as strumming his guitar and writing lyrics that were both poetic odes to life in Jamaica and protests against the inharmonious socio-political landscape. That joy was found in football.

Looking at old photographs of him playing, his smile beams as his eyes shrewdly follow the play. Although slightly contorted by concentration, Marley’s face never shed the childlike skin that was steeped in awe. A style icon, he made sure to look the part on the field as much as the stage. His boot of choice, the Adidas Copa Mundial, makes the images even more timeless. Combined with his cotton tracksuits, almost always tucked into his socks, he fully immersed himself in the game.

During the times he’d play wearing shorts, his slim, muscular legs revealed the power contained within the diminutive singer. They propelled his movement with the ball to produce moments of unutterable flair that opponents expected from a professional player, not a singer. Like music, he seemed to be guided by something unconscious. His form became instinctual and raw, just like his performances.

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His transcendent movement allowed him to shimmy beyond defenders’ eager legs as easily as his music shifted between tribal lines and cultural borders in his homeland. From the evidence that exists, it’s clear the Marley was never far from a football, making the most of spaces in his touring schedule to play impromptu matches with his Wailers band-mates. Whether it was car parks, petrol stations or bandit grassy knolls, the iconic black and white ball always made its way out. 

Marley was considered a formidable opponent by many, although some will claim his ability to dazzle was as much down to his presence as technical ability. Trevor Wyatt, an Island Records UK distributor, fondly recalled his on-field presence. “Trying to get the ball off him … was just hopeless. Because Bob was the person he was, the ball always came to him. He was the midfield general, if you like, and they called him skipper. They were so good, it was like playing Brazil.” It seems that he might have been given the ball as an act of goodwill, but getting it back was harder than the star betrayed with his warm demeanour.

His own talents are, like most of Marley’s life, doused in mythology. But as Joseph Campbell said: “Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” Beyond his on-field talents, though, Tuff Gong’s relationship with football was far clearer. 

More than just a passing interest, Marley actively engaged with the footballing world, despite Jamaica having failed to ever make an impact on the global game. Always with his own way of doing things, Marley chose his tour manager for most of the 1970s for reasons beyond their experience in the field. It was more like they’re experience on it. With a CV that included a stint with the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs and later Brazil’s Náutico, Allan Cole also found himself touring the world with the star and even having co-writing credits on Marley’s 1976 song War.

Appearing in three World Cup qualifying matches for the side dubbed the Reggae Boyz, Cole was regarded as his country’s most celebrated player. Marley was known to say that he wished he could sing as well as Cole could play football. The tricky Jamaican’s movement were so beguiling that an old tale recalls a move so sharp that it duped an entire stadium, sending the swaying masses in the stands in the wrong direction.

Cole’s spell in Brazil may also have influenced Marley’s team of choice. A devoted fan of Santos, Marley idolised the ephemeral talent of Pelé. Modelling his style partly on the Brazilian maestro, he found his Truth in football as much as music, telling an inquiring journalist: “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me and the Wailers.” It was a part of his performance and his identity. 

One of the threads that run throughout Marley’s music was the idea of oppression. In Redemption Song, Marley crooned, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.” Years later, on French television, Marley, in his typically thoughtful and lilting drawl, said in an interview, “Football is freedom.”

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Music was the fabric of his life but football stitched it together. His music, heavily influenced by the political zeitgeist of Jamaica’s fraught society, was a heavy load and the touring that came with it, although at his insistence, took its toll. Football was his own means of freeing his mind. The roughly stitched leather balls that always accompanied him should itself be given writing credits. It’s hard to imagine the cuttingly concise call-to-arms lyrics having been possible without Marley being in the right frame of mind.

As with everything the singer touched, it had to be conducted with peace in mind. During their tours, his buses would be fitted with televisions so that he and the band could watch matches, so long as they were kept on mute. Marley never liked the atmosphere that the commentators contributed. It is quite a scene to imagine; the band all chatting as Marley sat transfixed on the ebb and flow of the match in contemplative silence as the scatty signal fought for clarity. 

What happens if the beautiful game had found him before the music of his nation? Marley mused on this in an August 1980 interview: “I love music before I love football. If I love football first [it] maybe can be dangerous. I love music and then football after. Playing football and singing is dangerous because the football get very violent. I sing about peace, love and all of that stuff, and something might happen y’know. If a man tackle you hard it bring feelings of war.” A typically serene and infectious laugh followed.

Don’t mistake the kindness of his manner for a lack of conviction, though. It was the passionate and convicted football of Latin American that truly captured his imagination. Former Tottenham hero Osvaldo Ardiles and fellow countrymen Diego Maradona impressed the reggae star no end. 

Although Maradona was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad due to his relative youth, Marley was already deeply infatuated with the Argentine way of football. During that year he was embarking on a 52-date tour of North America and Europe for the album Kaya. To the chagrin of managers, agents, organisers and media, the trip was planned around the schedule and times of the tournament.

Back on home soil in Kingston, football was a daily practice. Games were played by the docks with engineers and the dusty roads of Trenchtown with banana sellers. If there was an object to be kicked, from oranges to an actual ball, Marley would be shouting for the pass in his emotively hoarse roar. 

The true power of his voice shone through his songs, though. After a friendly between Cardiff and Ajax began to get heated, with fans beginning to taunt each other after the game, a palpable feeling of volatility entrenched both sets of fans – until a masterstroke came from Cardiff’s DJ Ali Yassine. To calm the fans, he played Three Little Birds. It was like a sedative to a charging rhino.

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Clearly indebted to this moment, Ajax fans still regularly belt it out in the thousands. The small incident has since become a tradition. Fans of the Amsterdam side have drawn a message of tolerance for their multicultural fan base from the lyrics of the song. Hope can be short-lived in football, but for the duration of the song, regardless of form or feeling, the Ajax fans take his words as pause for reflection.

In July 1977, Marley had been found to have a malignant melanoma on his toe, an illness that was discovered as a result of a footballing injury. During a routine examination, the true severity was revealed. A workhorse, Marley planned a world tour for 1980 and, after the release of Uprising, he set out to play in front of crowds of up to 100,000, his cancer having been kept at bay in the years between.

Dublin had slowly begun to open its doors to overseas cultural imports, and at the home of Bohemian Football Club, the iconic Dalymount Park, Marley performed in July of that year. His voice of dissent resonated with the Irish crowd and, although terminally ill, he danced around the stage in his usual out-of-body manner, his glorious mane acting as his partner. 

Merely two months after this concert, he found out that the cancer had spread to his brain and, having previously cited religious reasons for rejecting an amputation of the toe, chose to adopt an alternative cancer treatment based on dietary restrictions at a clinic in Germany. After eight months of battling the disease in Europe, his condition declined and he opted to return home to Jamaica. On the flight, Marley’s vitals began to worsen and he stopped in Miami, passing away shortly after on 11 May 1981.

Football was appealing to Marley’s competitive streak and in the moments of close competition he was able to escape the trappings of fame. Yet the two sides involved in football, like Jamaica’s political system and Kingston’s gang wars, were symbolic. The ball, like the guitar, was an object to unite that ultimately brought two warring factions together with a shared goal.

As a child, Marley was known as “white boy”. Having a white father meant that his skin was a lighter shade than his peers. Of this, Marley said, “I’m not on the white man’s side, or the black man’s side. I’m on God’s side.” Marley always felt like he was in the middle, bringing people together. Football served as one way to do that along with his music, and like his music, it served an even higher purpose. 

Playing football was a spiritual exercise, a place to clear his mind. It was a pure experience that enabled him to have conversations with God. It pushed distraction to the side and allowed his thoughts to crystallise. That’s why, along with the guitar, the bud and the Bible, a football was one of the only earthly possessions that Bob Marley took with him. It’s all he really ever had and all he ever really needed. 

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

Photo by Dennis Morris

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