Played at 19,000 feet on volcanic ash pitch
They came, they saw, they conquered – and broke a world record. Having climbed up Africa’s highest mountain, taking goal posts and nets in tow, a group of fearless women have achieved what many thought impossible and played a 90-minute football match on Mount Kilimanjaro.
The squad of 30 footballers representing 20 nationalities, who included retired US international Lori Lindsey and former England midfielder Rachel Unitt, completed a 11-a-side match at nearly 19,000 feet, an altitude never attempted before. Using flour to mark the pitch and trekking poles as corner flags, the women — ranging in ages, from 18 to 66 years – played in punishing conditions on a volcanic ash pitch.
The game, between Volcano FC and Glacier FC, ended goalless, but the result was inconsequential as the sole purpose of the challenge was to highlight the inequality women face in sport.
American defender Erin Blankenship, co-founder of event organizers Equal Playing Fields, said: “You can’t challenge the fact that you’ve got a group of athletes who are playing at almost 19,000ft. It doesn’t matter what gender they are.”
Olympic champion Lindsey, who played for the USA at the 2011 World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, was one of the star players taking part. She was keen to raise awareness of the issues women and girls face when playing sport.
“I’m fortunate enough to have had pioneers who came before me, but it’s our responsibility to continue to make strides forward for the generations to come,” she told CNN Sport before embarking on the trip. Playing in thin air, which causes a reduction in physical performance, isn’t easy.
“We made a pact before the game that it was all about the game finishing,” said Glacier FC coach Dawn Scott. “It was equal opportunities and we termed the substitutes coming on as record makers as they’d be the ones pushing us on because you could see players dropping and needing oxygen towards the end.”
Fight for equality
Throughout history sportswomen have had to climb metaphorical mountains and organizers Equal Playing Field say the fight is ongoing, which is why they dreamed up this record-breaking mission. This year alone, the debate over equality has made headlines.
Earlier this month it was revealed that Serena Williams, the most successful female tennis player in the Open era, was the only woman in Forbes’ latest list of the world’s top 100 highest-paid athletes. The 35-year-old American is ranked 51st, with total earnings of $27 million last year – $37m less than Roger Federer, the most successful men’s tennis player in history, who is fourth on the list.
In April, the US women’s national soccer team ended a long-running dispute over pay and conditions by agreeing a new deal with US Soccer, the country’s governing body. That was not the only case this year of international sportswomen taking a stand.
Also in April, the Republic of Ireland women’s football team threatened to go on strike. Players’ representative, Stuart Gilhooly, said they were being treated like “fifth-class citizens” by the Football Association of Ireland.
Meanwhile US women’s hockey threatened to boycott the world championships before agreeing a pay deal just three days before the start of the tournament. Equal Playing Field had said it wanted to “challenge the social norms for girls and women in sport” and acknowledge “the systematic, structured inequality that girls and women face in most aspects of their lives.”