Bob Marley loved music and ganja and Rasta. And he loved football.
Bob Marley balancing and bouncing a football on his thighs; dribbling in a spray of dust through some anonymous Jamaican dirt yard; knocking a ball down with his chest, trapping it with his inside foot, hammering it into the net with a flick of the toe. Not the archetypal image of the reggae legend but apt nonetheless.
Marley loved music and ganja and Rasta. And he loved football. As a boy in Nine Mile, in the central Jamaican highlands, he was content kicking a dried-up watermelon around the lopsided waste ground scraped out of the hillside. His passion for the game stayed with him throughout his life. Indeed, there were times he seriously considered forgoing a musician’s life for a professional footballer’s.
It was in 1969, while living together on downtown Kingston’s Regent Street, that Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston—the original Wailers—began seriously playing football. Near their home were three champion clubs: Railway, the No. 1 team; Boystown; and George’s Kensington. Railway, based at the bottom of Darling Street, was blessed with Jack Murphy, one of the greatest goalkeepers in Jamaica—a tough, roughhouse player. On practice grounds, the Wailers would play with such top footballers; eventually they formed their own team, the Soul Rebels, with Livingston as striker. They played fiercely contested matches against these ranking sides, participating in a local competition known as the Black Shield.
Marley was not immediately successful as a footballer in Kingston. He was scorned as a “country” player, zealous but unsophisticated, and was given the insulting nickname Miss Marley because he played, insisted these ghetto men, like a girl. Obliged to up his skills, Marley learned to mete out his wrath to anyone who dared to slight him. Eventually, he became Mister Marley.
It was around this time that he first encountered Skill Cole, Jamaica’s leading player and a member of the national team. Cole would muster various teams at the Tuff Gong headquarters and join Marley in his morning “eye-opener” coastal runs. Cole—who was managed by the father of John Barnes, the great English footballer—wore his hair in locks and professed allegiance to Rastafari. He and Marley became close friends, and Marley came to embrace Rastafarianism.
Cole couldn’t dissuade him from one of his country football habits: Marley was so used to playing the game barefoot that he felt more comfortable without boots. Even when other players wore boots, he’d tackle them in his bare feet. As a result, the big toe on his right foot, which as a child he had injured in a Nine Mile stream, would become bruised and battered, sometimes oozing with pus.
Football was not just a passion and a pastime for Marley; it was also a refuge in times of peril. Before the One Love Peace Concert, in April 1978, for example, he spent time knocking a ball around his 56 Hope Road yard under the eyes of rival bad men, some of whom may have been involved in the assassination attempt on him in December 1976.
Fleeing to London after that attack, a bullet still in his arm, Marley sought proximity to a football pitch. He and the Wailers rented a house in Chelsea on the approach road to Battersea Park and its playing fields. In London, Marley recorded the two albums that became Exodus and Kaya.
The release of Exodus was promoted by a European tour, whose first date, in Paris, was May 10, 1977. The day before, Marley and a number of local journalists played on a pitch near the Eiffel Tower. The opposing squad consisted of French show-business veterans led by Francis Borelli, Paris Saint-Germain’s then president. During the match, Marley was tackled hard, his right foot stamped on, the nail on his big toe torn off. That toe, already twice seriously injured, was slashed near the nail by a player’s rusty running spikes. The wound online casino never fully healed; Cedella, Marley’s daughter, would dress it each evening.
A Parisian doctor removed the nail, telling Marley to stay off his feet—advice not heeded, as he performed onstage in sandals that revealed his bandaged foot. Each day he also played soccer, wincing when his foot made contact with the ball. Gilly, his good bredren and cook, recalled the injury: “For a couple of years, he had a bloodshot toenail that he never did anything about. Until he was stepped on, he never limped. It was the guy stepping on it that aggravated it. Then he toured for six weeks. They gave him a cap to put on it if he was going to play soccer, like a sponge thing. He still played hard.”
Doctors told Marley the toe injury had revealed an underlying melanoma. One medical practitioner recommended a skin graft. Others advised him to have the toe amputated. Citing religious reasons, he refused.
Marley’s life was a seamless combination of music, spirituality, and football. (His son Ziggy’s name came from the Jamaican term for dribbling.) Endless matches were part of the daily plan. One of those players to whom the ball seems magnetically attracted, he favored the fluid, melodic, Latin version of the game; the European style of play, with its hard knockdown tackles, was not to his liking. His favorite team was Santos of Brazil; in 1978 he flew to South America and met Paulo César, the Brazilian captain.
It was a feather in Marley’s cap when the five-a-side team he put together on a subsequent visit to Brazil trounced all the opposition in a show-business tournament. Traffic’s Jim Capaldi lived in Rio and played for the Wailers team, as did Capaldi’s roadie, Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin, and the singer Jacob Miller. “Bob used to say, ‘You know, I think I should have been a football player,’” Marvin told me.
Not all the Wailers shared Marley’s enthusiasm for the game; none had his ability. “The group themselves weren’t really good players,” said Neville Garrick, their art director.
Accordingly, for a series of five-a-side matches in the English capital, the team comprised Marley, Wailers percussionist Seeco, Gilly, Cole, and Garrick.
In June 1977, the late Rob Partridge joined Island Records as head of publicity. “The first thing I had to get right was playtime for Bob Marley. The first time I met him was on the football pitch,” he said. That playtime was a Battersea Park football match. The opposition was composed of Island Records employees. “Bob played everywhere,” remembered Trevor Wyatt, an Island A&R man. “He was fantastic, as was Gilly. Bob had a great touch. We couldn’t get the ball, just watched them pass it around. They were so good because they played all the time. They were born to the game.”
As a lover of the Latin style, Marley was a great fan of the Argentine Ossie Ardiles, who was transplanted to London and playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Partridge bought Marley a Spurs shirt, which he wore often. “I’d videotape the BBC TV program Match of the Day when Spurs were playing and send it to Bob. In 1978 he was in Britain at the time of the World Cup, and he recorded every match he could. We even had to schedule interviews around the game.”
In the summer of 1980, at the end of the Tuff Gong Uprising tour, Marley chose not to do any interviews at all—just play football against assorted media teams. Matches were arranged in West London. One of the five-a-side teams they played was Ice Records, captained by the Guyanese star Eddie Grant. In Milan on that tour, Marley played to 120,000 people, the largest audience of his career. The venue couldn’t have been more appropriate: San Siro Stadium, which was shared by AC Milan and Inter Milan.
Not long afterward, at the start of the U.S. leg of the tour, while he was jogging in New York’s Central Park with Cole on Sept. 20, 1980, Marley collapsed. The cancer initially discovered in his right big toe, revealed by that bad tackle in Paris three years earlier, had metastasized. He went to Bavaria and underwent the controversial Issels cancer th erapy, but to no avail. The melanoma had thoroughly invaded his lungs and brain, and he died in Miami on May 11, 1981.