Meet the women footballers who broke a world record at 19000 feet

Meet the women footballers who broke a world record at 19000 feet
13 min read
16 November, 2017
Long read: a team of women footballers from across the Middle East broke a world record when they played a game on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, writes Ben Jacobs.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a delightfully daunting challenge for even the most seasoned of hikers.

It's hard graft, battling altitude sickness and minus-20 degree gusts just to reach the Echo of Africa's peak. So to stage the world's highest-elevation football match in a volcanic crater just below the 19,341-foot summit seems a fanciful goal. Yet that's precisely what 40 brave (and slightly bonkers) female footballers did last June in order to break a world record and, more importantly, promote gender equality in sport.

"I was sat on the sofa in Australia complaining about a lot of things and suddenly the world record idea came to me" says Equal Playing Field co-founder Laura Youngson.

I chose Kilimanjaro because it has a nice flat playing surface at the top. It was the perfect venue to achieve something special and in doing so give female athletes a voice.

"Believe it or not, there are more stories about horses than women in the sports pages. This is ridiculous and something that must change. I want to be reading about my heroines and watching them on television.

"Equal Playing Field was thus not just a PR stunt or bit of fun. It was a football match to showcase some amazing women and highlight that sometimes female athletes have to literally climb a mountain just to get the support or media coverage they deserve."

Youngson partnered with Saudi-born American Erin Blankenship to form Equal Playing Field and the pair soon scoured the globe for willing players to join them on a whirlwind nine-day hike in the Tanzanian clouds.

US Olympian Lori Lindsay, recently retired France striker Sandrine Dusang, ex-England defender Rachel Unitt and former Mexico captain Monica Gonzalez were some of the high-profile names to sign up.  

"It was surreal standing next to some of our sporting idols," admits Blankenship, who played professionally as a defender for West Ham United.

"Women's sport is too often an afterthought and to change that we felt we needed to set a world record that would make everybody sit up and take notice."

In total six continents were represented on the trip, with Saudi pair Saja Kamal and Rasha Al Khamis and Jordan internationals Haneen Khateeb and Yasmeen Shabsough a part of the Middle East contingent.

"I want to be a role model for young Jordanian girls," says Shabsough, who was inspired to take up football watching former Barcelona defender Carlos Puyol.

"In Jordan the results of the female national team are much better than the men, so why do I get paid less? I want to change that."

"I just want to pave the path for other Saudi Arabian women not to have it as difficult as we do," adds Juventus fan Kamal, who is campaigning for a recognised Saudi women's international team.

I want to be a role model for young Jordanian girls

"It has been such an uphill battle for me. Playing football should be a stress reliever not stress creator.
"We all arrived in Tanzania with very different backgrounds and stories and even though each of us face unique challenges, Equal Playing Field shows we are not alone.

"The world record attempt allowed us to unite and gain strength and inspiration from those around us."

Before the party took one last steaming-hot shower, strapped on their 8kg backpacks and set off, they played a warm-up match at Kilimanjaro's base against a Tanzania XI. Three of the local opposition had caps for the Tanzania national team, but turning out for their country had come at a cost.

"Women's football here is seen as a shame," concedes Regina Marcel, one of two of Equal Playing Field's Tanzanian players.

"The Maasai tribes are quite conservative so don't like the idea of women showing their legs or kicking a ball.

"It's crazy. Some of my family even believe playing football will actually turn a woman into a man and stop her from getting a husband.

"As a result, those who represent our women's national team and are in the public eye can often face heavy criticism and even be shunned by their loved ones."

There is not only a social stigma for many women to overcome just to play the beautiful game, but once on the field they can face verbal or physical abuse as well.

In a recent high-profile case, England and Chelsea striker Eniola Eluko was the victim of racist attacks from now sacked manager Mark Sampson. Sexual abuse is also disturbingly commonplace at all levels of the game.

"The football pitch should be a safe environment, but a lot of women feel they have something to prove on it," says KV Mechelen's Thai-American striker Ashley Hall.

"In Thailand I was the only girl on a men's team and was told to leave my handbag in the locker room and grabbed in places I shouldn't have been touched.

"Equal Playing Field is battling such injustices and teaching young girls to be strong and speak out.

"The fact is women's sport doesn't only need more exposure or funding. This is clearly very important, but it won't truly flourish unless women, at a very basic level, are also respected."

Equal pay naysayers may argue men's football is simply more popular and marketable, but in America the Women's Soccer League (WSL) averages over 75,000 television viewers per match, putting it on a par with the Scottish Premier League

Respect certainly wasn't lacking as the Equal Playing Field stars entered Kilimanjaro's park gates.

Tanzania's major media outlets gathered in a frenzy to offer a traditional Swahili send off to the 350-strong party, which also included doctors, press, chefs and porters. Amongst them were Kili veterans who had climbed the mountain over 50 times but had never seen an ambitious feat of this nature attempted.

Following a couple of mild hikes to acclimatise, the group arrived at Moir Camp to play a second match, this time at 15,000 feet. That's a full 3,000 higher than Bolivia's Estadio Hernando Siles – the venue Brazil's Neymar called "inhumane" and where Lionel Messi vomited on the halfway line during Argentina's goalless draw back in 2013.

In terms of altitude the world record could have been comfortably smashed here, but a lack of space meant the makeshift pitch – creatively concocted using errant rocks and branches – wasn't big enough for it to officially stand. It also made Barnet's slanted Underhill Stadium look as flat as a pancake.

After a hearty pancake feast – the go-to Kilimanjaro lunch – hundreds of raucous porters watched on as Volcano FC, led by Kim Smith, ground out a narrow 1-0 win over Glacier FC, who were trained by USA women's national team strength and fitness coach Dawn Scott.

"It was our first experience of playing at altitude and on a really difficult surface," says Lori Lindsey, who won 31 caps for the United States and silver at the 2011 Women's World Cup. "It was pretty hard to make clean contact with the ball, but the game gave us an example of how hard to push. After months of talking about the world record we were suddenly one huge step closer."

Lindsey has been a first-hand victim of the inexplicable pay gulf between male and female footballers. Despite having won four Olympic gold medals and three World Cups, the US women's national team earn 40 percent of what their male counterparts pocket.

Bruce Arena's side also got a bounty of $4.5 million despite failing to qualify for Russia 2018, yet the women received only $2 million for winning the 2015 World Cup. A year earlier Germany took home $35 million for lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in South Africa. To date only the forward-thinking Danish Football Association has agreed to pay its men and women the same.

Equal pay naysayers may argue men's football is simply more popular and marketable, but in America the Women's Soccer League (WSL) averages over 75,000 television viewers per match, putting it on a par with the Scottish Premier League.

"I think most female athletes do accept pay is strongly linked to sponsors and popularity," argues Lindsey. "And we certainly don't just want a pay rise handed to us out of sympathy. We want better infrastructure and media exposure. We also want Football Associations or clubs that oversee budgets for both men and women's teams to reward success not sex.

"No one can deny the US women are more successful than the men. We won the 2015 World Cup in front of over 50,000 people and all our games were sell outs at Rio 2016. We are elite level athletes and deserve equal opportunities and pay.

"What is also interesting about Equal Playing Field for me is it highlights major issues at grass roots level. No wonder women's football can't succeed globally if girls can't even play it freely in places like Tanzania."

For Khateeb and Kamal it was pretty surreal playing alongside Lindsey. They never dreamed of rubbing shoulders with an Olympian. For the pair just donning shorts or a short-sleeved jersey is a mini victory. Sporting green braids, Kamal is fervently patriotic but still remains disappointed Saudi Arabia hasn't fully accepted female athletes, despite finally sending a women's team to Olympics in 2012.

"There was such a backlash over the girls that went to London creating perhaps more negatives than positives," admits Kamal.

"The 800-metre runner Sarah Attar was verbally abused and the disgusting hashtag 'Olympic whores' went viral on social media. That's not OK.

"These are inspiring women playing sport. They are doing nothing wrong and no one has the right to degrade them.

"However I do think things are slowly moving in the right direction in Saudi Arabia. Five years on from that Games and there is much more pride about putting girls in the cultural hijab on the world stage. It is a chance to showcase our culture."

My hijab is not an obstacle

"My hijab is not an obstacle," adds Khateeb, who started playing football on the streets of Jordan when she was 11.

"I am proud to wear it. It is part of who I am. My religion is not an obstacle to sport and to be able to take the hijab to almost 19,000 feet and make history is an honour and a blessing."

After six emotionally and physically grueling days of hiking, the Equal Playing Field team finally arrived at the windy Kosovo Camp, seven hours from the glacier-strewn Uhuru Peak, the official name for Kilimanjaro's summit.

It was now time to embark on perhaps the longest ever pre-match warm up, starting with a wake-up call at 0200.

The breeze tried its best to turn every forward step into two backwards ones, but spirits remained upbeat even as fingers and water bottles rapidly froze.

"We set off in the pitch black dark after very little sleep," says Youngson, who was also battling a strained thigh.

"We were just trudging, one foot in front of the other, trying to keep going. It was incredible because we had these brilliant team-mates with us and as we passed each of the groups we'd pat each other on the back, bump fists and say, 'Keep going, you can do this!'"

The first part of the day was complete when the group reached Kilimanjaro's sub-summit Stella Point around 0830. Having started to thaw off as the sun rose – and watched in awe as the daunting dark sky dissolved into a warm orangey-red beacon of hope – a clear view of crater-stadium beneath emerged and tears of joy began to flow.

"It was extremely emotional when we got up to Stella Point, which was the first real feeling of having summited," explains Blankenship.

"You could see the crater about 20 minutes away and it still baffled us how we were going to find the energy to play a football match there given how little oxygen was in the air."

A set-up crew left an hour earlier than the group to prepare the field. It wasn't just a case of packing a ball and having a casual kick about in the volcanic ash, which is soft like quicksand. To officially break the record everything had to be FIFA approved. Full-sized goals were thus shipped up the mountain and trained officials were necessary.

Pacifying Guinness, while at the same time respecting the natural environment, was no easy task. The crater had to be left in the same way it was found, so trekking poles were creatively employed as the base for the corner flags and plain flour was used to mark out the pitch.

"I had this vision of what the pitch would look like and by the time we arrived it was all happening in front of us," says Youngson. "We had our pitch specialists setting up the goals, carefully laying out the flour and marking everything in accordance with the regulations. I just sat back and watched. It was incredible to see this idea coming to life with such a wonderful group of women and men who were trying to change the world."

Most hikers only stay at Kilimanjaro's summit for around 30 minutes. They watch the sunrise, take a quick selfie and bolt down to a welcome warm shower, having not properly washed or seen clean clothes in over a week. Yet the Equal Playing Field heroines were about to play a 90-minute match at 18,746 feet.

For safety, the two teams had oxygen masks on standby with doctor Dana Levin eagle-eyed for any signs of acute mountain sickness.

"We prepared ourselves as best we could, but our real goal was prevention," explains the American, who is hoping to become an astronaut. "We had a very high-performance team who didn't want to let their team-mates down. With that comes the chance certain individuals could push themselves beyond what is safe.

"We were on the look out for players who might run themselves down to the point where they became dangerously hypoxic. Cardiac arrest was also a risk, but the group was very sensible and well aware this was not a totally safe environment to play a football game in."

Kick-off proved a poignant moment for everyone involved, but starting the match was just the beginning. It was important this was also a competitive spectacle. The match was indeed surprisingly fast-paced and full-blooded and although it finished goalless there were countless chances.

Dusang grazed just over the bar, Gonzalez gallivanted around like a woman possessed and Hall displayed countless neat tricks. Yet despite all pros on show, the best chance to break the deadlock fell to Equal Playing Field co-organiser Maggie Murphy.

"I missed a one-on-one with the keeper," laughs Oxford University graduate Murphy.

"I mis-hit it on a surface that, to be honest, made us all feel a bit ridiculous at times. Perhaps I should have flicked it up and over the goalie. I will certainly be replaying it in my head for months to come, but I have got a world record and that's all that matters.

"Of course a goal would have been nice, but this game was for every girl or woman who feels like a second class citizen when it comes to sport. The score really wasn't important."

When the full-time whistle blew the players fell to the ground in a mixture of jubilation, disbelief and sheer exhaustion. But with light fading they had to quickly find the energy to make the short yet brutal 750-metre climb to the summit.

"I suffered from altitude sickness during the match and had to have some medical treatment," said Shabsough.

"So after full-time I had no idea how on earth I could reach the top. I just wanted to sleep or throw up. But I looked around and saw all my wonderful team-mates. Everyone was hugging and crying. And at that point I realised nothing is impossible, so when asked if I wanted to carry on to the summit I simply replied, 'Hell yeah!'"

Breaking the world record for the highest altitude football match is only the beginning for Equal Playing Field, who will now be receive their Guinness World Record certificate from former FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Ali Hussein at the Football for Peace Ball in London on November 17.

Since returning from Kilimanjaro a range of grass roots clinics have taken place across six different continents in order to inspire young girls as well as tell the Equal Playing Field Story.

A Hollywood movie on the trip will also be released next year. And this won't be the last time Equal Playing Field enter the record books either with plans already in place to stage the world's lowest altitude football match at Jordan's Dead Sea in 2018.

"The goal of Equal Playing is simple – to challenge gender inequality in sport," says Youngson.

"We now have a strong presence across the globe and already hosted clinics in 15 countries, reaching over 1,500 girls and women.

"We want to change communities by providing strong female role models. Slowly but surely we will make female athletes a better known commodity than horses!"

Ben Jacobs is a senior journalist with BeIN, ESPN and TalkSport, based in Dubai and reporting from around the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @JacobsBen