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How Bob Marley’s love of football came to be immortalised in the form of an instantly iconic Ajax shirt

WORDS Dan Poole

Fashion
Why have Ajax got a Bob Marley-inspired third kit this season? It’s a reasonable question. For the answer, you have to delve back into the mists of time (well, 2008) and pay a visit to the south coast of Wales on a wet August evening. Now zoom in on Cardiff and Ninian Park, erstwhile home to Championship side Cardiff City. It’s not the sort of venue where you’d expect to find a link to this world-famous pioneer of reggae – it is not, after all, the San Siro, where Marley once played a gig in front of 110,000 people.

Anyway, Cardiff it is. It’s pre-season and the four-time European Cup winners are in town. On the face of it, it’s a tie for the romantics: good old British grit
up against Dutch sophistication. Ninety minutes later, any romantics who made the trip have been left damp and discontented, as 0-0 is the less than electrifying final score.

However, the good news is that we’re not here for the game – we’re here for what happened afterwards. When that final whistle blew 13 years ago, the few hundred Ajax supporters who had made the trip were kept behind in the stadium, to allow the Cardiff fans to disperse. The Netherlands natives faced the prospect of a 560km trip home with nothing but the memories of a drab scoreless draw to content them. They needed entertaining.

That’s where Ali Yassine stepped in. The then stadium announcer knew that Amsterdam was a city renowned for its passion for reggae and had made the decision in advance to play a few records from said genre. And the one he went for first? “I put on a Bob Marley song – Three Little Birds – and they all started dancing,” he told BBC News.

And that was all it took. Before long, the song that first featured on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1977 Exodus album had cemented itself as a modern-day terrace anthem for AFC Ajax. Today it’s belted out at every home game at the Johan Cruijff ArenA and has even been performed on the pitch by Marley’s son Ky-Mani: initially in 2012, then again for a 2018 Champions League match against AEK Athens.  

“My father was a big football fan, and football and the music went hand in hand,” said Ky-Mani. “Being able to perform the song there, to feel the energy and the vibration there, did something to me I’ll never forget. Ajax, that’s my team. From now until the day my number is gone.”
“It was important for us to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football”

Ky-Mani’s dad had an undoubted passion for the round ball. He was often pictured wearing football tracksuits and jerseys – in combination with his beloved pair of adidas Copa Mundials – and supported Santos FC. He also had a soft spot for Tottenham Hotspur, owing to the presence in their side of Argentinian legend Ossie Ardiles.

In a 1980 interview Marley said, “I love music before I love football. If I love football first, it maybe can be dangerous. Playing football and singing is dangerous because the football get very violent. I sing about peace, love and all of that stuff, and something might happen, you know? If a man tackle you hard, it bring feelings of war.”

One of Marley’s favourite battlefields was Battersea  Park. In the same year that Three Little Birds was released he moved to Chelsea, from where he would  regularly make the five-minute walk from his home to play on the pitches there. Fellow reggae star Eddy Grant would also get involved, as would well-known UK food entrepreneur Levi Roots. “He was so focused with the ball at his feet, running at you,” said Roots. “And his main aim was to get past you, then to shoot. He was a master – of both of his passions.”

Battersea wasn’t the only place that you’d find Marley doing keepy-uppies. He’d essentially take every opportunity; if he wasn’t singing, he was dribbling. In between studio sessions, before going on stage – it was Marley’s outlet.

And so here we are: football and music have combined in homage to the reggae baller. And it’s a kit that has proved hugely popular on a global scale (it was sold out within three days of launch). But why now? “The 2021/22 third shirt is a celebration of Bob Marley’s life as it coincides with the 40th anniversary of his passing,” explains James Webb, a senior designer at adidas and the man behind this beauty. “It was important for us to respect Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, while trying to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football.

“This is the first time I have based a concept around a particular song, so it was important that the jersey was able to tell the story of the Three Little Birds just by looking at it. We wanted it to be bold, playful and expressive but simple in execution – just like the lyrics of the song.”

There’s another parallel between football and music that has been emerging over the past few years: third kits have become the equivalent of a B-side, in that they allow for some creative freedom. “There is definitely an appetite for third kits because they offer clubs and their fans new territories to move into,” says Webb. “Home and away tend to play into the DNA and identity of a club, whereas with third kits we are able to push the boundaries in terms of delivering unexpected designs.”

We’ll leave the last word to Marley’s daughter Cedella (who, incidentally, has also caught the football bug: her financial support helped the Jamaican national women’s team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 2018). “I am beyond touched that Ajax has taken Three Little Birds and made it their anthem,” she said. “Stories like this warm my heart and show how impactful songs like Three Little Birds can be. Soccer was everything to my father and to use his words, ‘Football is freedom.’”

History
Back to the beginning

Ajax have taken a trip through time in the design of their home kit this season, with the Dutch giants temporarily reintroducing the previous version of their club crest. The first to feature the mythological Greek hero that the Amsterdam side are named after, the old badge showcases a detailed portrait of Ajax. It held sway from 1928 to 1990, becoming forever associated with the club’s hat-trick of European Cup wins in the 1970s.

Before that, the team’s logo was a simpler affair portraying an Ajax player. But it was this classic crest that truly captured the imagination of supporters, as it put the club’s namesake front and centre. In fact, more than a few objected when Ajax simplified the badge three decades ago, despite the neat touch of the new image being made up of 11 lines – one for every player on the team.

Some fans have kept up their campaign ever since, even coining the slogan “Give Ajax his face back”. Those pleas have not gone unheard: fresh from winning the Dutch double last term, Ajax decided the time was right for a nod to the past. “After such an unreal season,” read a statement on the club’s website, “this historical logo will be back on the home jersey, in what is a one-off tribute to the fans.”

Anyway, Cardiff it is. It’s pre-season and the four-time European Cup winners are in town. On the face of it, it’s a tie for the romantics: good old British grit
up against Dutch sophistication. Ninety minutes later, any romantics who made the trip have been left damp and discontented, as 0-0 is the less than electrifying final score.

However, the good news is that we’re not here for the game – we’re here for what happened afterwards. When that final whistle blew 13 years ago, the few hundred Ajax supporters who had made the trip were kept behind in the stadium, to allow the Cardiff fans to disperse. The Netherlands natives faced the prospect of a 560km trip home with nothing but the memories of a drab scoreless draw to content them. They needed entertaining.

That’s where Ali Yassine stepped in. The then stadium announcer knew that Amsterdam was a city renowned for its passion for reggae and had made the decision in advance to play a few records from said genre. And the one he went for first? “I put on a Bob Marley song – Three Little Birds – and they all started dancing,” he told BBC News.

And that was all it took. Before long, the song that first featured on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1977 Exodus album had cemented itself as a modern-day terrace anthem for AFC Ajax. Today it’s belted out at every home game at the Johan Cruijff ArenA and has even been performed on the pitch by Marley’s son Ky-Mani: initially in 2012, then again for a 2018 Champions League match against AEK Athens.  

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“My father was a big football fan, and football and the music went hand in hand,” said Ky-Mani. “Being able to perform the song there, to feel the energy and the vibration there, did something to me I’ll never forget. Ajax, that’s my team. From now until the day my number is gone.”
“It was important for us to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football”

Ky-Mani’s dad had an undoubted passion for the round ball. He was often pictured wearing football tracksuits and jerseys – in combination with his beloved pair of adidas Copa Mundials – and supported Santos FC. He also had a soft spot for Tottenham Hotspur, owing to the presence in their side of Argentinian legend Ossie Ardiles.

In a 1980 interview Marley said, “I love music before I love football. If I love football first, it maybe can be dangerous. Playing football and singing is dangerous because the football get very violent. I sing about peace, love and all of that stuff, and something might happen, you know? If a man tackle you hard, it bring feelings of war.”

One of Marley’s favourite battlefields was Battersea  Park. In the same year that Three Little Birds was released he moved to Chelsea, from where he would  regularly make the five-minute walk from his home to play on the pitches there. Fellow reggae star Eddy Grant would also get involved, as would well-known UK food entrepreneur Levi Roots. “He was so focused with the ball at his feet, running at you,” said Roots. “And his main aim was to get past you, then to shoot. He was a master – of both of his passions.”

Battersea wasn’t the only place that you’d find Marley doing keepy-uppies. He’d essentially take every opportunity; if he wasn’t singing, he was dribbling. In between studio sessions, before going on stage – it was Marley’s outlet.

And so here we are: football and music have combined in homage to the reggae baller. And it’s a kit that has proved hugely popular on a global scale (it was sold out within three days of launch). But why now? “The 2021/22 third shirt is a celebration of Bob Marley’s life as it coincides with the 40th anniversary of his passing,” explains James Webb, a senior designer at adidas and the man behind this beauty. “It was important for us to respect Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, while trying to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football.

“This is the first time I have based a concept around a particular song, so it was important that the jersey was able to tell the story of the Three Little Birds just by looking at it. We wanted it to be bold, playful and expressive but simple in execution – just like the lyrics of the song.”

There’s another parallel between football and music that has been emerging over the past few years: third kits have become the equivalent of a B-side, in that they allow for some creative freedom. “There is definitely an appetite for third kits because they offer clubs and their fans new territories to move into,” says Webb. “Home and away tend to play into the DNA and identity of a club, whereas with third kits we are able to push the boundaries in terms of delivering unexpected designs.”

We’ll leave the last word to Marley’s daughter Cedella (who, incidentally, has also caught the football bug: her financial support helped the Jamaican national women’s team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 2018). “I am beyond touched that Ajax has taken Three Little Birds and made it their anthem,” she said. “Stories like this warm my heart and show how impactful songs like Three Little Birds can be. Soccer was everything to my father and to use his words, ‘Football is freedom.’”

History
Back to the beginning

Ajax have taken a trip through time in the design of their home kit this season, with the Dutch giants temporarily reintroducing the previous version of their club crest. The first to feature the mythological Greek hero that the Amsterdam side are named after, the old badge showcases a detailed portrait of Ajax. It held sway from 1928 to 1990, becoming forever associated with the club’s hat-trick of European Cup wins in the 1970s.

Before that, the team’s logo was a simpler affair portraying an Ajax player. But it was this classic crest that truly captured the imagination of supporters, as it put the club’s namesake front and centre. In fact, more than a few objected when Ajax simplified the badge three decades ago, despite the neat touch of the new image being made up of 11 lines – one for every player on the team.

Some fans have kept up their campaign ever since, even coining the slogan “Give Ajax his face back”. Those pleas have not gone unheard: fresh from winning the Dutch double last term, Ajax decided the time was right for a nod to the past. “After such an unreal season,” read a statement on the club’s website, “this historical logo will be back on the home jersey, in what is a one-off tribute to the fans.”

Anyway, Cardiff it is. It’s pre-season and the four-time European Cup winners are in town. On the face of it, it’s a tie for the romantics: good old British grit
up against Dutch sophistication. Ninety minutes later, any romantics who made the trip have been left damp and discontented, as 0-0 is the less than electrifying final score.

However, the good news is that we’re not here for the game – we’re here for what happened afterwards. When that final whistle blew 13 years ago, the few hundred Ajax supporters who had made the trip were kept behind in the stadium, to allow the Cardiff fans to disperse. The Netherlands natives faced the prospect of a 560km trip home with nothing but the memories of a drab scoreless draw to content them. They needed entertaining.

That’s where Ali Yassine stepped in. The then stadium announcer knew that Amsterdam was a city renowned for its passion for reggae and had made the decision in advance to play a few records from said genre. And the one he went for first? “I put on a Bob Marley song – Three Little Birds – and they all started dancing,” he told BBC News.

And that was all it took. Before long, the song that first featured on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1977 Exodus album had cemented itself as a modern-day terrace anthem for AFC Ajax. Today it’s belted out at every home game at the Johan Cruijff ArenA and has even been performed on the pitch by Marley’s son Ky-Mani: initially in 2012, then again for a 2018 Champions League match against AEK Athens.  

“My father was a big football fan, and football and the music went hand in hand,” said Ky-Mani. “Being able to perform the song there, to feel the energy and the vibration there, did something to me I’ll never forget. Ajax, that’s my team. From now until the day my number is gone.”
“It was important for us to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football”

Ky-Mani’s dad had an undoubted passion for the round ball. He was often pictured wearing football tracksuits and jerseys – in combination with his beloved pair of adidas Copa Mundials – and supported Santos FC. He also had a soft spot for Tottenham Hotspur, owing to the presence in their side of Argentinian legend Ossie Ardiles.

In a 1980 interview Marley said, “I love music before I love football. If I love football first, it maybe can be dangerous. Playing football and singing is dangerous because the football get very violent. I sing about peace, love and all of that stuff, and something might happen, you know? If a man tackle you hard, it bring feelings of war.”

One of Marley’s favourite battlefields was Battersea  Park. In the same year that Three Little Birds was released he moved to Chelsea, from where he would  regularly make the five-minute walk from his home to play on the pitches there. Fellow reggae star Eddy Grant would also get involved, as would well-known UK food entrepreneur Levi Roots. “He was so focused with the ball at his feet, running at you,” said Roots. “And his main aim was to get past you, then to shoot. He was a master – of both of his passions.”

Battersea wasn’t the only place that you’d find Marley doing keepy-uppies. He’d essentially take every opportunity; if he wasn’t singing, he was dribbling. In between studio sessions, before going on stage – it was Marley’s outlet.

And so here we are: football and music have combined in homage to the reggae baller. And it’s a kit that has proved hugely popular on a global scale (it was sold out within three days of launch). But why now? “The 2021/22 third shirt is a celebration of Bob Marley’s life as it coincides with the 40th anniversary of his passing,” explains James Webb, a senior designer at adidas and the man behind this beauty. “It was important for us to respect Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, while trying to merge the Caribbean and European worlds through the lens of music and football.

“This is the first time I have based a concept around a particular song, so it was important that the jersey was able to tell the story of the Three Little Birds just by looking at it. We wanted it to be bold, playful and expressive but simple in execution – just like the lyrics of the song.”

There’s another parallel between football and music that has been emerging over the past few years: third kits have become the equivalent of a B-side, in that they allow for some creative freedom. “There is definitely an appetite for third kits because they offer clubs and their fans new territories to move into,” says Webb. “Home and away tend to play into the DNA and identity of a club, whereas with third kits we are able to push the boundaries in terms of delivering unexpected designs.”

We’ll leave the last word to Marley’s daughter Cedella (who, incidentally, has also caught the football bug: her financial support helped the Jamaican national women’s team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 2018). “I am beyond touched that Ajax has taken Three Little Birds and made it their anthem,” she said. “Stories like this warm my heart and show how impactful songs like Three Little Birds can be. Soccer was everything to my father and to use his words, ‘Football is freedom.’”

History
Back to the beginning

Ajax have taken a trip through time in the design of their home kit this season, with the Dutch giants temporarily reintroducing the previous version of their club crest. The first to feature the mythological Greek hero that the Amsterdam side are named after, the old badge showcases a detailed portrait of Ajax. It held sway from 1928 to 1990, becoming forever associated with the club’s hat-trick of European Cup wins in the 1970s.

Before that, the team’s logo was a simpler affair portraying an Ajax player. But it was this classic crest that truly captured the imagination of supporters, as it put the club’s namesake front and centre. In fact, more than a few objected when Ajax simplified the badge three decades ago, despite the neat touch of the new image being made up of 11 lines – one for every player on the team.

Some fans have kept up their campaign ever since, even coining the slogan “Give Ajax his face back”. Those pleas have not gone unheard: fresh from winning the Dutch double last term, Ajax decided the time was right for a nod to the past. “After such an unreal season,” read a statement on the club’s website, “this historical logo will be back on the home jersey, in what is a one-off tribute to the fans.”

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