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Exploring Bob Marley’s devoted relationship with football

“Football is a whole skill to itself. A whole world. A whole universe to itself. Me love it because you have to be skilful to play it! Freedom! Football is freedom.” – Bob Marley

Bob Marley’s paraphernalia included a red Gibson guitar, a Bible, a bud of marijuana and a football. On the field, he was often seen sporting Adidas Copa Mundial boots and track pants tucked deep into his socks. If he was not singing, he was either playing or appeared disposed to kick a ball. Dennis Morris, Marley’s photographer and close friend had once admitted, “Watching him play football was magical. I never really took photos of him while he played football because I really just wanted to watch him play. Because it was his joy, and it was the only time he had to relax, so that was really when I would put the camera down.”   

Born on February 6, 1945, in Nine Miles, Jamaica, Marley had opened up a whole new world of reggae and ska traversing continents and eras. An ardent football fan, Marley supported Brazilian side Santos FC and, when in Britain, headed to north London to follow Tottenham Hotspur, lured in by his enjoyment of watching Argentine midfielder, Ossie Ardiles play for the Spurs during the 1970s. Marley was as skilful on the field as he was on stage. Growing up amidst violence and poverty and being of mixed race, Marley found football as his only egress to happiness. “Tuff Gong” was a nickname he had earned owing to his resilience on the football field. A football would always find its place in the tour buses, which would often be used in pick-up games at different venues or just juggled by Marley when he wished. While touring London, his band had challenged a team of Island Record employees for a game of football at the fields at Battersea Park. Marley’s friend and opponent in the game, Levi Roots, who was a celebrity chef at the time said, “He was so focused. With the ball at his feet, running at you and his main aim is to get past you, then to shoot. He was a master. Of both of his passions.”

Like all avid football fan, Marley couldn’t live without the beautiful game and, when it was time to work, he ensured that all tour buses had televisions installed for him to watch matches on mute — Marley did not fancy the commentators. While his bandmates chatted among themselves, Marley derived pure visual pleasure immersed in the game being aired on television. Intrigued by ‘samba football’, Marley admired South American football with a passion and he supported Brazil as his own, often spotted in the iconic yellow jersey. The 1978 World Cup, which was famously held in Argentina, had Marley whipped up into a frenzy. Not allowing work to clash, the musician managed to organise his tour in a fashion which would allow him to watch almost all of the matches screened on television.

While giving an interview in 1980, Marley revealed, “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 gets 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.”

Through his songs, Marley advocated against poverty, injustice, violence and despotism. His song ‘Get Up Stand Up’ proved to be a source of power for the citizens of Jamaica in their battle against oppression and racism. ‘One Love’ painted a picture of compassion and camaraderie. His songs engendered love and peace: “It is better to win the peace and to lose the war,” he once famously said. While his messages of peace were felt directly, Marley has been able to influence the masses in far more convoluted ways. In 2008 and faced with a crisis, ‘Three Little Birds’ was played at the Cardiff City Stadium to appease the fans who were hurling abuse at each other after the game against Ajax ended in a stalemate. The Dutch fans were moved and the song would resonate across the Johan Cruyff Arena for years to come. Marley’s songs possess a power which comforts the audience and unites them infinitely.

Like Bob Marley, the youth of Jamaica share an adoration for football and music. In as much as Jamaica is riddled with political unrest and poverty, the people of Jamaica find solace in reggae and sports. With the ball at his feet, Bob Marley felt one with God and considered football as a mean to channel his thoughts. Having introduced Jamaica and its music to the entire world, Bob Marley remains one of the greatest luminaries of the music world.

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