Late afternoon in Dallas and the Toyota Stadium in the city’s suburbs is all but empty. Dotted around an otherwise sweep of vacant red and blue seats are a few hundred fans.
In the lower bleachers, looking like the first specks of a pointillist painting, some supporters are wearing plastic ponchos, protecting themselves from the drizzling rain on what is a chilly October Wednesday. Though they create sound, the cheers and the cries are largely swallowed up into the ether.
The majority of ticket-holders have yet to filter into the 20,000-seat arena for that evening’s top-billed match between the US and Canadian national women’s teams. It means only a few experience the drama and the history unfolding on the pitch as Jamaica and Panama engage in a stomach-churning penalty shootout.
“No one was paying attention to us, so to speak, but it really wasn’t about anything else but us,” Jamaica goalkeeper Nicole McClure tells CNN Sport, remembering the match which would alter the course of women’s football in her country.
Deadlocked at 2-2 after 120 minutes, there was only one way to resolve the high-stakes third-place playoff which would determine which team would qualify for the Women’s World Cup in France. The winner, indeed, taking it all.
Jamaica had already been bold, bringing on McClure especially for the shootout. She and her teammates had practiced spot-kicks throughout the week. Was this shootout destiny or an example of how well prepared the squad was? Perhaps both.Four penalties in and no one has yet missed. Pulses quicken. Panama’s Lineth Cedeno steps up, directs her effort at an obliging height and McClure saves but there is no wild celebration from the team’s unflappable substitute goalkeeper. Instead, she calmly tells herself that she must save another. “The first save I felt something. I would say something within myself,” she recalls.Kenia Rangel, Panama’s fourth penalty taker, places the ball on the white spot 12 yards from goal. She shoots to her left, McClure dives low, her outstretched hand making contact with the ball. Save. Jamaica is on verge of becoming the first Caribbean island to qualify for the biggest tournament in the women’s game.
Supporters continue to filter into the stadium. The majority of the Jamaican team look as if they’re on trampolines, bouncing on the halfway line in an attempt to contain the butterflies as Dominique Bond-Flasza prepares to take the penalty which could make history.
Walking towards the penalty spot, the PSV defender decides where to place her shot. To the right, towards the top corner. “You know what to do,” she tells herself, before taking a deep breath. Though there are nerves, she does not fear failure because she has not contemplated missing. “I just went for it,” Bond-Flasza tells CNN Sport.
The ball flies into the net.
Against the odds, after cuts in funding, after disbandment, after hearing naysayers opine that women couldn’t and shouldn’t play football, Jamaica’s women qualify for the Women’s World Cup for the first time in the country’s history.
The 22-year-old Bond-Flasza, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and Polish father, starts running towards her teammates before turning on her heels, switching direction to sprint towards McClure after noticing her goalkeeper is not among the yellow swarm racing towards her.
“I don’t think a single thought was going through my head other than World Cup! World Cup! World Cup!” recalls Bond-Flasza, who was engulfed by her teammates, buried at the bottom of a heap of unbridled joy after they eventually caught her. “I couldn’t believe what we’d just accomplished.”
‘I’m not here for money and accolades’
Jamaica’s head coach Hue Menzies did not see Bond-Flasza’s penalty because a cameraman was in his sight line, but he did not need a bird’s-eye view to know the right-back had scored. The force of his 6 feet 4 inch, 270-pound goalkeeping coach jumping on his back in a sugar-rush of emotion told Menzies all he needed to know.
Anyway, he had never doubted his players. “We had confidence,” he tells CNN Sport. “Some of these players come from very adverse situations. When you’re dealing with that, you don’t feel a difficult situation like that is going to jolt them.”
An American-based soccer coach who moved to Jamaica after living the first four years of his life in England, Menzies describes himself as a “mommy’s boy.” With his father having left the family when he was young, he was brought up by a mom who, he says, had to be both a mother and a father. “A strong-minded woman,” is how he describes her, his respect unbounded.
It is partly because of the influence and strength of the women in his life, his mom, his grandmother, that Menzies has devoted himself to lifting his country’s female players from the depths of disbandment to the highs of World Cup qualification.
We’re earning our respect, we haven’t got it, we’re earning it.