At 18,746 feet (5,714 meters) of altitude, it’s not so easy to breathe. It’s especially difficult when it’s -17° F (-27° C). Even more so when you’re running for 90 minutes in ankle-deep volcanic ash—like sand, but finer—after having hiked more than 40 miles in the previous six days.
In 2017, 28 women from more than 20 countries braved those conditions to play a game of soccer. They set up in the crater of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Their game, more than a mile higher than the world’s highest stadium, set the Guinness World Record for highest-altitude soccer match ever played.
The match was intended to show the world what female athletes can do, one bold act to defy the slowness of global change. And that was just the beginning—over the next two years, their mission would become a global one; this year, many of the same athletes participated in world’s largest soccer game.
I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the match on Mount Kilimanjaro until I went there myself. In May, I sat with my dad and three of my siblings eating soup in our red tent, toes frozen in my hiking boots. We were partway through a challenge we had dreamed about completing for years: summiting Kilimanjaro.
By the fifth day of our nine-day trek, pole-pole (po-lay po-lay), the Swahili mantra for “slowly,” had become our own refrain. Starting at 18,000 ft, bodies need extra time to acclimate to the altitude; if hikers ignore this, altitude sickness becomes a serious, and sometimes life-threatening, risk. James Upanga, our head guide and pole-pole enforcer, told us to avoid all unnecessary physical activity—even card-playing, he added. Upanga was the first to tell me about the group of female soccer players he led up the mountain in 2017.
“That match must have been pole-pole,” we joked.
Upanga, an unflinchingly solid presence, let a smile sneak across his face.
Upanga had been one of the 30 guides to lead the players to their makeshift pitch, determined to keep them safe no matter the conditions. “We were the spectators, plus at the same time we were the first-aid-ers… we were ready just in case of any emergency,” Upanga said.
Reading about horses
The idea to play a regulation game on the highest freestanding mountain in the world came from Laura Youngson, an entrepreneur and amateur soccer player based in Melbourne, Australia.
It, like many big ideas, came from Youngson’s mounting frustrations with the limited public attention towards women’s sports. In the United Kingdom, women received just 0.4% of all sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013, and comprise just 7% of all sports media coverage, according to the nonprofit Women in Sports (in the US, they receive just 4% of media coverage). One day, Youngson realized that there were more sports media stories about horses (not horse racing, just horses) than there were about women. When Youngson mentioned it to a journalist, he responded: “Yeah, but people like horses.”
Not long after, Youngson was working for the local organizing committee in Azerbaijan for the European Games and found herself having to advocate for her corporate women’s team to be funded. The men’s had been funded automatically.
After all these experiences, an idea popped into Youngson’s head: Let’s do something really dramatic, and have it be all women. Her friend Erin Blankenship, a former three-sport elite athlete who now works in international conflict management, recalls getting a message filled with exclamation points from Youngson in the middle of the night.
Youngson, who had grown up reading the Guinness Book of World Records, drew inspiration from the organization’s motto, “Dedication is what you need.” She knew Kilimanjaro had a crater on the top that was higher than Everest base camp and big enough for a full-sized soccer pitch. That’s when she contacted the travel company Nature Discovery, which began to assemble a team of guides and porters to undertake one of its most ambitious trips to date.
Once Youngson had the where and the how figured out, it was time to recruit the players. She started with her existing network, which was extensive since she had lived and played in multiple countries. Most athletes Youngson first approached declined. The first major yeses were players from the Afghanistan National Team, who had wanted to play on behalf of all the girls in their country who cannot due to discrimination (the players ultimately couldn’t go because of issues with their visas).
What started out as a quirky challenge for Youngson was turning into something much bigger. “This could be an opportunity to campaign for some of the rights that women around the world are looking to get within this sport,” she said.
After calling on friends of friends, Youngson and Blankenship eventually created a roster that included American two-time Olympic gold medallist Lori Lindsey; former German star Petra Landers; former Mexico captain Monica Gonzalez; and dozens of other players from Argentina, France, Indonesia, Jordan, Sweden, the UK, US, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
Though players ranged in age from 15 to 55, most were in their 30s. Maggie Murphy, an anti-corruption policy advocate and the spokesperson for Youngson and Blankenship’s organization, told me she didn’t see it as coincidence. By the time they reach their third decade, many of these players have reached their peak, and in the process become frustrated that the system didn’t support them as it would if they were male, Murphy said.
The organization Youngson and Blankenship co-founded as part of this mission, which they dubbed Equal Playing Field (EPF), comes about at a pivotal moment in women’s professional sports. This March, after years of being underpaid and under-appreciated, the players on the US Women’s team sued their employer, the US Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination. The players argued that, in spite of demonstrated success, they systematically receive pay, benefits, travel conditions, training, coaching, and medical treatment that is inferior to their male counterparts.
This issue isn’t isolated to the US; for most female players around the world, Murphy notes, equal pay is still a dream. “We just want to not be put on the worst pitch that’s waterlogged and a 20-minute walk from the changing rooms,” she said.
Opportunity, equality, respect—this is what EPF believes most female athletes are striving for. To achieve that in the long term, the group is trying to raise awareness of the challenges female soccer players face. So it’s working to set world records, the first of which took place on Mount Kilimanjaro.
“[World records are] eye-catching… and then you can have this platform to talk about the social change,” Youngson said. Through an extensive network, EPF now works in 32 countries on six continents. The organization’s goal is to encourage football associations around the world to support their women’s divisions, to increase and normalize media coverage of women’s sports, and to equip women with the tools and skills to solve the challenges they face in their athletic careers.
Every EPF participant, no matter her skill level, joined because she had experienced some form of discrimination. Some had been harassed and shouted at in the streets for playing soccer. Many, like Youngson, had to fight for funding and respect.
Haneen Khateeb, from Jordan, started playing soccer at age 11 and worked her way up to the national level, where she played for a year in 2010. She didn’t see a way she could continue to play professionally there, so she quit. But in 2016, Khateeb got a new opportunity to work within the sport she loved—that was the year the first FIFA Women’s World Cup (under 17) took place in the Middle East. Khateeb served on the organizing committee in Amman, Jordan. The camaraderie Khateeb saw across cultures and linguistic lines made her want to support others who wanted nothing more than to play soccer. So she started volunteering to introduce soccer to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. While there, she was struck by the ways in which the sport transformed players’ personal lives.
Sports have well-documented psychological, emotional, and medical benefits for all players, but women in particular feel them acutely; a 2007 United Nations report ties women’s participation in athletics to higher academic achievement, reduced levels of teenage pregnancy, and increased respect for female community members.
In February 2017, Khateeb heard about the Kilimanjaro match. Four months later, she was on a plane with Yasmeen Shabsough, her former club and national-level teammate.
Youngson chose Mount Kilimanjaro in part because, though physically demanding, the hike doesn’t require advanced mountaineering skills. With the support of experienced guides and capable porters, climbers need only focus on preparation and precaution.
(In 2006, Kilimanjaro National Park reported a summit success rate of 45%; current estimates indicate that’s probably now closer to 65%, as more climbers opt for longer routes to let their bodies acclimatize to the altitude.)
On June 18, 2017, 28 players, five referees, and more than 20 support crew set out on a nine-day trek from the city of Arusha, Tanzania. They walked with 30 guides, split across five groups, and were assisted by over 300 porters. It was, as Upanga put it, “a big operation.”
The players had to prepare for months for that game. Four days into the hike, at 13,780 ft (4,200 m), the teams played a practice game on a smaller pitch to acclimatize. The guides watched that game closely; it gave them confidence that the group would be able to play at the top, in three days.
Upanga has been leading trips on Kilimanjaro for more than 10 years. He says that physical preparation is important, but mental fitness is really the key to making it to the top.
Nearly all the players completed the ascent to the makeshift pitch. Their devotion to their cause helped them put one foot in front of another. “What kept us moving is thinking about why we’re here…how we’re doing this [to build] a future for the girls who want to play football,” Khateeb said.
On the day of the world record match, the group left camp at 2 am to climb several thousand feet before descending into the crater. Beforehand, a crew had set up goals and cleared the pitch of big stones. They drew the field’s lines with flour, a natural material chosen because it wouldn’t damage the environment. The balls were inflated at the top to account for the change in air pressure.
When the players arrived, they had to start their game right away to minimize their time in the low-oxygen environment. The match, per FIFA regulation, involved 11 players on each team and lasted 90 minutes. Oxygen tanks stood at the ready. Some players ran too fast, felt sick, and had to be helped by the doctor and nurses who had hiked up to the crater. In spite of the harsh conditions, the level of play—especially on the part of the goalies—exceeded the organizers’ expectations.
“Even though it was a nil-nil draw, we celebrated at the final whistle as though we’d just won the World Cup ourselves,” Murphy said. “It was this feeling of elation, that we’d done this slightly crazy but very ambitious, exceptional thing.”
The match itself was an accomplishment. But for most of the athletes, the most lasting impact came from getting to know one another. They spent most of their time talking and sharing the experiences that brought them there.
Many of the women had made it there because of support from strong male allies, “usually their fathers, who, when other men were closing the door to their daughters or their sisters, they were the ones that opened it,” Murphy said.
The women also connected on something most of them didn’t have, and still couldn’t find: decent soccer cleats. “It kind of amazed me that players around the world and players at the elite level were still wearing men’s shoes or kids’ shoes to play in,” Youngson said.
The players have kept in touch, to maintain that connection and to support each other. “We realized that collectively across that network, we could actually help each other with the challenges that we faced… we still battle local football associations, we still battle stereotypes and we still battle communities or media that are representing us in a way that we don’t want to be represented,” Murphy said.
Low altitude, high impact
“When we started climbing the mountain, literally no one cared, to the point that people wouldn’t even wish us good luck, because they thought we might die,” Youngson said. When the players were halfway up with no cell phone signal, CNN ran a story about their mission on its homepage. The women first heard about it when another group of trekkers recognized them. Other climbers began to look for them on the mountain. After they descended, the players were inundated with media requests. People wanted to learn more.
When Khateeb and Shabsough returned home to Jordan, they found a crowd waiting for them at the airport. “People just started realizing that we did something really undoable for other people,” Khateeb said. The trip solidified their commitment to dedicate their lives to gender equality in sport at home.
After the match, many players returned to train girls and women in their home countries. Khateeb is no exception. She has been working in public schools all across Jordan to improve students’ life skills through sports.
The students have more opportunity, too. When she was growing up, Khateeb said, there weren’t many ways for girls to play soccer. Now, thanks to support from the Jordanian royal family, the country has had a women’s national team since 2005, plus nine club teams. Khateeb has also found the Women’s World Cup to be more popular than ever, among both men and women in Jordan.
Not long after they returned, Shabsough joked that the same group should come set the Guinness World Record for lowest altitude match in Jordan, at 1,069 ft (326 m) below sea level. That match happened in 2018.
Alongside the match, Khateeb and Shabsough led an effort to provide free professional soccer training for 700 girls and to build a soccer field in the Dead Sea area for the match, which locals continue to use. EPF has also run soccer training camps for girls in Palestine, Lesotho, Costa, Rica, Vietnam, and Greece.
And because of players’ frustration with their cleats, this month Youngson is launching a company that makes them specifically for women. She has already been overwhelmed by demand from female athletes in other sports.
The biggest match
Given the success of its high-altitude match, EPF wasn’t going to stop there. In June 2019, EPF held its most recent challenge: the world’s largest game.
On June 27, timed to coincide with the Women’s World Cup, EPF kicked off its Festival of Football in Lyon, France, host of the World Cup semifinals and finals. It featured dozens of workshops and skills sessions to instruct girls and women in everything from refereeing to sports photography. It also achieved the largest five-a-side soccer game, substituting in 807 players from more than 60 countries over the course of 68 hours. Participants included a team of members of British parliament as well as a number of players who had participated in the Kilimanjaro match.
This year’s event, in contrast to the first, drew big-name sponsors such as Twitter and Adidas and also convened a summit on women’s challenges in soccer, with 120 leaders in the sport participating. And this year, EPF is focusing on breadth and visibility, to show that “there are women across the entire world, regardless of their background, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of the GDP of the country or religion or ethnicity or ability, we want to show that women are playing,” Murphy said.
In spite of efforts like those of EPF, women still have a long way to go to achieve equality in soccer. The FIFA Women’s World Cup wasn’t established until 1991, more than 60 years after the men’s tournament. That means women’s soccer is well behind in participation, media attention, and funding. This year, total prize money awarded to teams participating in the World Cup is just 7.5% that of the men’s last year.
FIFA acknowledges that it still needs to get more women playing, coaching, refereeing, and working in soccer. Its first-ever Women’s Football Strategy, published last year, cites “institutional neglect” and a “lack of investment” to explain why female players and coaches are still not treated as well as males.
Still, there are signs of progress. Last year, FIFA pledged to appoint women to at least one third of committee positions by 2022 and double the number of women’s youth leagues by 2026. The 2015 Women’s World Cup attracted 750 million people; the US versus Japan Final was the most-viewed soccer match in US history. This year, FIFA projects tournament viewership to exceed 1 billion.
The game’s ascent has been pole-pole for sure, under harsh conditions. But female players have acclimatized.
Women are playing. And, now, more people are watching.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.