USA vs. Jamaica where Bob Marley made peace

KINGSTON, Jamaica – More than three decades have passed since Bob Marley uttered the final lyrics of his shortened life, yet tracking down reggae music's eternal icon takes no effort at all on the beautiful sun-drenched island where his story began.

For Marley's music and philosophy is a part of Jamaica's very fabric, and for all the palm trees and white sand and irresistible rum cocktails, the tourist economy in this part of the Caribbean is just as reliant on visitors seeking musical enlightenment and a sample of Rastafarian tranquility.

The United States men's soccer team is chasing something very different here, having arrived ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against the home nation with the simple goal of three points and a step towards Brazil next summer on its agenda.

Yet as surely as Paris spells romance, Jamaica means Marley and even on a journey of purely sporting interest there is no avoiding (why would you want to?) links to a musical maestro who spread an ideology of peace and is still adored for it.

Friday's clash will take place at Jamaica's National Stadium, a venue that has seen better days but will be packed nevertheless for a critical contest where a U.S. victory would severely dampen the hosts' World Cup chances and greatly enhance its own.

As they enter the ground on Friday evening, American captain Clint Dempsey and his colleagues will be overlooked by a bronzed statue of Marley, gazing wistfully over at the stadium he once graced. Some may barely notice, but for Dempsey, it will mean a lot more.

For the man from Texas who now plies his trade with Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League knows all about Marley – the man, the music and the mythology. He knows that this stadium was the scene for one of the legend's most iconic and significant concerts, one that – temporarily at least – pulled Jamaica back from the brink of a bloody civil war.

It was on April 22, 1978, when Marley took to the stage as the One Love Peace Concert wound down and invited rival political leaders Michael Manley, the then Prime Minister, and Edward Saega, leader of the opposition party, to join him, persuading them to join hands in a show of unity. The pair stood side by side as he launched into "Jammin'."

Persuading Manley and Saega to undertake such a symbolic act was an extraordinary achievement given the depth of the divisions between their rival parties, with each having aligned themselves with certain gangs in an attempt to gain political traction, leading to inevitable tension and violence.

Marley returned to Jamaica specifically for the concert, ending a two-year period of exile in England following an assassination attempt on his life, in a bid to better the plight of his homeland.

For a while, it worked, in a nation where a laid-back image belies social rifts that are generations strong.

Dempsey is a straightforward man and one of the most dedicated professionals you could wish to meet, and his answers on soccer-related questions are eloquent and informed, but generally straight to the point.

When asked about Marley, though, he allowed his guard to drop, with a smiling, enthusiastic response to what was a pretty unusual line of questioning the day before a game of significance.

"You see Bob Marley everywhere here and it is really cool because it is someone who I always listened to growing up and someone who did a lot for so many people with his music and his life," Dempsey told Yahoo! Sports at the U.S. team hotel in Kingston.

"I saw a documentary and it is clear that he was about so much more than the music. He was about bringing peace to the country, promoting that way of thinking – that's what his life was about. It is pretty cool to be playing at a stadium where that piece of history was made.

"This stuff is one of the great things about going to a new country. It makes you more aware, makes you more cultured as a person. This is not a vacation and it is business for us, but it is the kind of thing where you think you would like to come back and explore."

Music and sports are the two great loves of Jamaicans, and just as Marley influenced the world with his songs, athletes such as Usain Bolt have put Jamaica on the global map with their physical endeavors.

Cricket and track are the most popular disciplines in these parts, but on Friday it will be soccer that commands the island's attention as it attempts to give the U.S. (1-1-1) a shaky start to its upcoming run of three qualifying games in 12 days.

The beautiful game was always Marley's sport of choice anyways, annoying his neighbors with noisy daily matches played on his front lawn with friends, band members and employees at Tuff Gong Records.

"Sports and music both play an even bigger part in Jamaican society than people realize," explained Clover Johnston, general manager of the Bob Marley Museum located not far from National Stadium. "It is very difficult for the young people from lower economic backgrounds to get employment here, but in music and sports the only thing that matters is your talent.

"Bob Marley paved the way for the future of Jamaica in that regard. He showed that anything is possible if you have talent and hard work, and people still live by that."

The fascinating museum reveals a further soccer-related secret, this time a tragic one.

Marley suffered an injury to his right big toe playing soccer and the toenail bed became cancerous. A doctor advised him to have the digit removed but Marley refused and before long the cancerous cells had spread to his brain and other organs, causing his eventual death when he was just 36.

His legacy remains around the world and nowhere more so than in the heart and soul of this island.

"We are a small country but we were brought up to believe we could achieve great things," said Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. "In so many ways Bob Marley was the start of it. He showed that anything is possible and that is why he lives on."

And live on he does, in the daily rhythm of life here – on its streets, through its citizens, via its musical beats and, on Friday, through games of soccer.

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