Bob Marley is one of the greatest singers in the history of the world. His reggae sounds have brought billions of people together during his lifetime and beyond it. Despite only living to the age of 36, he inspired an entire world, and his musical legacy continues to thrive. However, despite his passion for music being higher than anything we may ever see, that passion was rivaled by his love for something else: soccer. If there was a parking lot, a field, a driveway, or even a cavernous recording studio, Bob Marley was practicing soccer, playing it, and loving it.
Marley’s tour manager was Allan “Skill” Cole, who was one of Jamaica’s best soccer players ever. Cole played in the NASL with the Atlanta Chiefs and in Brazil with Naútico. He would have an influence on Marley’s favorite team and players. Thanks to Cole’s time in Brazil, Marley considered Santos (and its star, Pelé) his favorite team to watch. Cole could do it all on the field: nutmeg a defender, curve balls between a wall on a free kick, and could break defenders down from several feet away. Marley would try to replicate all that, but while he wasn’t big, he was aggressive. When he went into tackles, he went hard. He kicked the life out of the ball. With midfield his preferred position, he could make long, overlapping runs. He was always looking for a chance to score. It was joked that he didn’t play defense because his aggressive tackles would lead to too many penalties.
His home in Kingston, Jamaica, Hope Road, would be the site of several 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 matches, which would attract major national team players and big crowds. Neville Garrick, who was the founder and executive director of the Bob Marley Museum, said about Marley: “If I was to rate ‘the Gong’ as a baller — I’m sure he’d be vexed to hear this — I would give him a 6.57 out of 10, because I grade hard. He gets that grade because of his weakness, as a player, which was also his strength. He was so aggressive and so competitive — and sometimes you can be too competitive. But, bwoy, he would run. Run for days.”
It was said that Marley would only take a guitar, marijuana, the Bible, and a soccer ball with him on trips. Everywhere they would go, a soccer ball was present, whether Bob Marley was on tour or was recording with other artists. Any spot was an opportunity for a soccer game, and Marley would take full advantage. He famously told one journalist, “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me and the Wailers.” Inside hotel rooms, Bob Marley would rent suites for two things: cooking big meals and juggling a soccer ball. According to Neville Garrick, they played a game called “Money Ball.” “With ‘Money Ball,’” Garrick said, “we’d juggle the ball inside that presidential suite. And if you broke anything, you’d have to pay for it. That’s why we called the game ‘Money Ball.’”
Still, for many in Marley’s camp, his smile was never wider than when he was following a soccer ball. He apparently only wore Adidas Copa Mundials so that he’d always be ready to play. In an interview on French television, he was asked about some lyrics from “Redemption Song” and what they meant: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.” Marley simply stated, “Football is freedom.” Music was life for Bob Marley, but soccer kept it whole. It was his release from the trials and tribulations of being on the road and constantly in the studio. He was at peace when he was playing the game.
It has been professed by many that his love for soccer is what ultimately lead to his untimely death. In 1977, while playing soccer against some journalists in Paris, someone tackled Marley in his foot while he wasn’t wearing proper cleats. His toenail tore off, and while the game continued, he went back to the hotel to clip the toenail off and bandage his toe. He had a bruise underneath his toe, and at first, people thought it was related to the soccer injury. Marley never complained about it, continuing to tour and play soccer daily. However, when it never subsided, he went to the United States to visit the doctor. There, he was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Doctors urged him to have his toe amputated, but citing his religious beliefs, Marley refused the surgery. The cancer eventually spread to his brain, and he died on May 11, 1981 at the tender age of 36.
Marley’s influence on soccer has continued to stand the test of time. Ajax has adopted “Three Little Birds” as their club anthem, and it’s routinely played at home matches at the end of halftime. For big matches, Marley’s son, Ky-Mani, has shown up to sing his father’s classic along with the crowd. Liverpool and Plymouth Argyle are teams who have sung “Three Little Birds” routinely at matches. “Don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright” are the lyrics from the song that are belted into the night, a show of hope and calm during stressful matches.
Bob Marley will forever be considered one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known. We can take comfort in his music and the fact that his music was so intertwined with the game of soccer. So, next time you’re on the field and having a frustrating day, or your team is playing terribly, just channel your inner Bob Marley and know that “every little thing is gonna be alright.”
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.