Playing a soccer match can be grueling. To do so after climbing to the summit of a 18,800 foot mountain is unthinkable. But it is exactly what a group of women from more than 20 countries did on June 24th in order to highlight the inequality women face in sport.
The women summited Kilimanjaro, the largest mountain on the African continent, to become world record holders playing a FIFA-regulated match (90 minutes, 11 players a side, with accredited referees) at the highest elevation in history: 5729 meters.
The match ended in a 0-0 draw, but more important than the score is the movement behind it.
Equal Playing Field initiative co-founders Erin Blakenship and Laura Youngston brought together bold and brave women from around the world. The group is a mix of global pros, competitive amateurs as well as graduates of international charities that use football as an outreach tool for the empowerment and development of girls. They range from the age of 15 to 65 and are undeniably passionate about the beautiful game.
Accompanying them were a team of medical staff, managers and project staff, photographers and local porters to assist with the climb.
June 2017 thirty women athletes from around globe will submit Mt. Kilimanjaro to play the highest football (soccer) game ever played. www.equalplayingfield.com
Maggie Murphy, part of the core organizing team and soccer player, told me over email that having a range of women from all over the globe was crucial to the project.
“When we spoke to potential players, we said that our call to action was simple. Opportunity, equality, respect. Nothing more, nothing less,” Murphy said. “This resonated with players whether they were in the US or Argentina or Jordan or Tanzania or Nepal.”
She emphasized that the challenges these soccer face are very similar.
“Sometimes it was how the people meant to support you would fail you, such as schools who banned girls from playing football or Football Associations who put roadblocks in the way instead of opening doors,” she said. “Sometimes it was the petty discriminations that underlined how football is ‘default man’, such as consistently being allocated the worst pitches, being given the men’s secondhand, ill-fitting kits, games being cancelled so that men could use our (sub-standard) pitches and let theirs rest, women being moved off pitches to let the boys team train.”
Murphy explained that other struggles for women centered around lack of fund allocation, prize money only being allocated to men’s sides, and how pulled sponsorships meant full teams would fold.
The women have experienced constant misogyny and discrimination, including sexual harassment from the sidelines. One player was assured by a man that he would donate to the crowdfunding campaign, as long as she went on a date with him.
Promoting football to young girls and women in the Middle East region is a natural part of what Haneen Al-Khateeb, a 22 year-old player from Jordan, does. She helped organize the U17 Women’s World Cup in 2016, which was hosted by Jordan, and has played on national youth squads.
(Photo Credit: EPF Initiative)
Her motives are sincere and her determination is palpable. I asked her why she felt it was important to be a part of this project.
This defender’s reply was moving and poetic:
“I didn't do it for myself, I did it for the great message that 30 girls were holding.
I did it because the playing field is not equal.
I did it For every girl/women who didn't get the opportunity to be who she might be.
I did it,because women footballers deserve to be seen and respected.
I did it because I believe I'm good enough for this and I have the ability.
I did it for the world, my country and my family.”
In an ambitious project that requires dedication, mental fortitude and sacrifice, some of the team members come in with addition motivations.
Monica Gonzalez is the former captain of Mexico’s national women’s team. She is also the founder of Gonzo Soccer Peace Foundation, an organization that uses soccer as a vehicle to support girls’ education and sports development in the USA, Mexico and Colombia.
I had a chance to chat with her on the Burn It All Down podcast about participating in the highest altitude match and what fuels her fire to be doing the work she does. She told us about the rigors of the climb, including trekking for eight days in the wind and cold, combating nausea, using the bathroom in the wild, sleeping in a tent on rocks but finishing with a five-hour descend into an inactive volcano.
They were divided into two teams: “Glacier” and “Volcano”, and played the match with oxygen tanks on the sidelines and physicians on standby.
But for Gonzalez, it as much about advocacy as it is about the women’s game. Last year when she was in Bogata with her organization, she heard about Yuliana Samboni, a seven year-old who was kidnapped, raped and murdered.
Gonzalez decided to take Yuliana’s flag with her to the summit and had the women sign the back. It was a powerful and solemn nod to the violence that marginalizes young women’s experiences around the world.
“That was my cause, that was my personal reason for going,” she explained.
For so many of the participants, the combination of soccer while fighting for justice is so much a part of their lived experience. Gonzalez says that all the women on the climb who participated are “the biggest badasses”, and being a part of the EPF initiative was a reminder of how these women have been willing to give their lives, or put their lives at risk, to play the game they love.
“They realize it’s [sic] a symbol of the injustice in this world against women,” she said. “And if men all over the world are already paying attention to football, why not use football as a means to show them exactly how unfair this world is? And why exactly it’s in their best interest to start fighting for our cause … and start fighting for balance.”
Sustainable and positive change comes with partnerships and grassroots agencies who can help in identifying gaps and services needed. EPF has had tremendous support from organizations including Discover Football in Germany, the USWNT, the Jordanian Football Association, Football for Peace, and hummel provided the game kits.
Catapult supplied the technical equipment to monitor the players’ performance over three altitudes to inform future research about the effects of altitude on female athletes. This type of biophysical tracking has not been done before, and this has helped amplify the work and efforts of EPF.
While individual members associated with FIFA did support this important project on social media, Murphy thinks there is still room for the organization to push for change internally in order to open up the game.
This is imperative, she says, “...so that our achievement is embraced by FIFA.com and not just the FIFA Women’s department. Our achievement was ground breaking. It shouldn’t remain the preserve of just women. It should inspire men and boys too, but it needs the visibility in ‘default’ men circles too.”
Not every player who registered and trained was able to attend. Murphy confirms that several players were unable to make the game for various visa and travel related problems that they were unable to solve, which is to be expered with a trip of this magnitude.
But the story is not over and all energy, and feet,are required more than ever.
The climb and match are completed, headlines and history are made, but there is much more work to do. The EPF initiative will continue to unite football players from all backgrounds to educate and empower, with existing partners in 15 countries, to run clinics and campaigns leading up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
In addition to the training, they will connect amateur players with national team programs and local media, in order to ameliorate coverage and attention they need from local communities.
(Photo Credit: Dana Roesiger)
There are already movements on the ground making change, and EPF wants to keep pressing, connecting and helping where it can, providing solidarity and support for girls and women in the football world. Ensuring that women players do not feel isolated is a part of the game plan.
For this sisterhood, on and off the pitch, the goal is to create more safe spaces and more equitable playing fields in order for women to play and win - be it in a grassy park in London, a dry square in Tanzania or a stadium in the United States.
Equal Playing Field has demonstrated that no pitch is too small, and there is no mountain too high for women’s soccer to break barriers and make change.