By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) - Usually known for its prowess on the track, Jamaica will be sending its first ever team to the FIFA Women's soccer World Cup in France next year, giving it a chance to showcase the Caribbean nation's strength across all sports.
That's according to Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith, who told Reuters that Jamaica's qualification for next year's 24-team tournament is a landmark moment for women's sport in the Caribbean.
The team, known as the Reggae Girlz, secured their place at their first World Cup by beating Panama this month on penalties after a 2-2 draw in the CONCACAF Women's Championship third-place playoff, the qualifying tournament for the north American region.
Jamaica's greatest sporting triumphs - bobsleigh achievements aside - have been in athletics, with "triple-double" Olympic sprinting champion and 100 metres and 200m world record holder Usain Bolt the symbol of the country for more than a decade.
However, with the 32-year-old now retired from athletics and attempting to get his own soccer career off the ground, there is space for new heroes to emerge, for which Johnson-Smith believes the Reggae Girlz are perfectly placed.
"One of the greatest benefits as a result of the girls qualifying is raising the visibility of women's football in Jamaica and in the Caribbean," Johnson-Smith told Reuters in a phone interview.
"It's not only their personal stories of grit and personal determination, each individual story is amazing as well as their story as a team. But generally just building visibility of not only women in sport but women in football has been a great spirit lifter and a great visibility lifter in Jamaica and in the Caribbean."
"As this football now shows, all of that strength, power, discipline and speed (from athletics), those skills can be harnessed in other ways as well with good team work, with good discipline in team sports like football. So I think it’s adding to our pantheon of heroes," she added.
The Jamaican team's qualification for the Women's World Cup comes 20 years on from the men's team's first ever World Cup appearance - also in France.
"I have been hearing that buzz in Jamaica with people saying 'great we are going to go to France again. We were there in 98 and now we are going there for the girls.' So there is a vote of confidence being placed in them," Johnson-Smith, also an attorney and Senator, said.
"I think maybe people who were not interested before are interested now, and I think that is one of the best benefits of this qualification because it's really giving people hope and really creating interest where it might not have been at its highest level before."
Jamaica may not be one of the favourites to win the eighth edition of the Women's World Cup, having been beaten by world champions the United States 6-0 this month.
But their appearance alone will be a boost after global soccer body FIFA said last week it will increase the prize money allocated across the tournament from $15 million to $30 million - though critics say that is not enough and is not in line with increases in money in the men's game.
FIFA also said that $20 million would be made available for pre-tournament preparations.
Johnson-Smith was part of the delegation who attended a charity match between the Reggae Girlz and Nottingham Forest Ladies in England on Sunday in tribute to the Windrush generation, the immigrants who were invited to the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries.
Perhaps inspired by the occasion in front of almost 4,000 spectators at The City Ground, Jamaica won 3-0 with two goals from Olufolasade Adamolekun and one from Shanise Foster.
"It has not fallen by the wayside that we should celebrate these people," Johnson-Smith said. "I think there's a coming together, the very same spirit, ambition, determination, hard working nature, commitment that characterised the Windrush generation are the very same characteristics you would find in the Reggae Girlz."
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)