Exclusive interview: Prolific striker on how football wasn’t a traditional path in Jamaica and how Raheem Sterling helped influence WSL move
Growing up in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Khadija “Bunny” Shaw learned early on that, when it came to sport, her island did one thing best: sprinting.
Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce were the athletes she and her school friends looked up to, the names that had put their island on the map.
At school, PE lessons were all about track and field. Even a trip to the local shop with her friends was all about betting who could run there quickest. But from as far back as Shaw can remember, she had a different dream.
“Track and field was a big thing on sports day, that’s the thing most Jamaicans do, but when we used to have track-and-field classes I would be creeping over to the football area,” Shaw says, a playful smile breaking across her face at the memory. “The coach would always have to be like, ‘Pay attention.’ ”
The irony is not lost on her that at her new club Manchester City, thousands of miles from home, she spent her first few weeks watching her compatriots excel on the track at Tokyo 2020. She witnessed, at City’s training ground, Jamaica’s one-two-three in the women’s 100 meters, and watched in awe Elaine Thompson-Herah retain her 100m and 200m Olympic titles.
“It’s amazing to see them doing their thing,” Shaw says. “Growing up, I would always be inspired by what they do. I hope I can inspire others by playing football.”
Shaw, the youngest of 13 siblings, from the age of 10 spent every afternoon playing football on the street or in the dirt tracks by her family home. Joining in with the boys in her neighborhood – when her mother finally allowed her to play, after deeming the game too rough at first – she remembers cutting open her big toe more times than she could count while playing in her slippers.
It was pure love of the game that drove her, considering she had no female role models in football and scant opportunities to play with other girls. “I did my own thing,” she says. “I always tell my teammates in other countries that they had youth leagues, but it’s different [in Jamaica]. It was strictly tracked, that’s the culture.”
People wondered what motivated her, her mother in particular baffled by her teenage daughter’s focus on a sport that seemed to hold no future. “Based on the lack of opportunity for female footballers in Jamaica, my parents preferred I get an education and look for a normal nine-to-five,” Shaw says. “Looking back, I see where she was coming from. I always told her, ‘You never know, maybe I could be the one to change things.’ ”
Now 24, Shaw has already done that by making history on the pitch. She helped lead Jamaica’s “Reggae Girlz” to the women’s World Cup in 2019, the first Caribbean nation to do so, and is the all-time leading scorer for her country with 42 goals in 30 appearances.
It is an accomplishment made all the more remarkable considering the hurdles she has had to overcome. Her family has suffered unimaginable tragedy, losing four of Shaw’s brothers in a short period – three of them to gun violence, one in a car accident – and two of her nephews also died not long after. Shaw was alone at university in the United States and has said, if not for her family supporting her, she might have given up on her football dream.
With the Reggae Girlz she also had much to contend with. The team was disbanded by the Jamaica Football Federation in 2011, due to lack of funding and, if not for the generosity of Cedella Marley – reggae legend Bob Marley’s daughter – who funded the team from 2014, Shaw would have had no clear pathway to senior football or her eventual scholarship to the University of Tennessee.
Even after qualifying in the World Cup, challenges remained. After their wages went unpaid for three months, Shaw and her teammates took a stand in September 2019, threatening not to play until the JFF paid their wages (which they eventually did).
“We had to grind through a lot of stuff,” Shaw says. “I’m thankful for Cedella. She was a big part of that and is an incredible human being. It’s not just football, she tries to help me out in life. She’s like my football mum.”
Having Jamaica’s most famous family-supporting women’s football is emblematic of their culture, Shaw says. “It’s a Jamaica thing. We always support Jamaicans.” It is why, when City came calling, she was already half-sold. She already supported the club thanks to Raheem Sterling, who hails from Jamaica, and of whom Shaw is a huge fan.
“It’s a small country, so if there’s one person doing big things, you’ve got to support them. I have friends who support United, but because I’m at City they support me. It’s the same with Raheem – when he left Liverpool, I supported Manchester City. It was all about Raheem, he’s such a great person.
“The more I watched City, the cool thing is how on their Instagram you can see both men and women – it’s not separate. [So] you start watching the women’s side. I like their style of play. It matched what I wanted to do.”
Shaw is yet to bump into Sterling at the training ground but hopes to do what he did for her, in inspiring a new crop of Jamaican players.
The Women’s Super League is already rich with attacking talent, with Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema, as well as Shaw’s new team-mate Ellen White. Shaw could well challenge them, though. She leaves Bordeaux, where she played for two seasons, as the French top division’s golden boot winner with 22 goals.
“I try to keep things as simple as possible,” she says of her style. It is not her speed fans should look out for, she says, but rather her acceleration. “I’m very explosive, that’s one of my biggest attributes, and I try to exploit that to help the team. The WSL is very competitive, that’s what I want – the real challenge, competing against the best.”