Player Profile | Nikki Riley, UK

Meet Nikki Riley from the UK – here she tells us what frustrates her about the way women athletes are portrayed in the media, how she’s been lucky to have had life choices that she knows are denied to others, and why she’s climbing Mt Kilimanjaro with Equal Playing Field.

Want to help Nikki break a world record? She’s also fundraising for our Egyptian star Esraa Awad. Sponsor them here: https://www.gofundme.com/equal-playing-field-kilimanjaro

I grew up in Nottingham, England. I played sports at school, but I wasn’t allowed to play football. The girls were only allowed to play netball and hockey, boys were allowed to play football and rugby. I hated all the sports I was “supposed” to play but I started playing football for a local girls’ team that my dad found when I was 10.

I never attended a pro-women’s football game until I was in my 20s as it wasn’t really something advertised. Come to think of it, I never watched any women’s sports -  all the live sports I was taken to see were men’s! It annoys me that there’s a bit of a stigma around women’s sport, that its seen as “not as good” or “the cheap option”. The coverage of women’s football in the UK has got better – but is still terrible.  When England played recently, I had to scroll through so many sports stories to find anything on the game! Ironic considering our women’s team are much more successful than our men’s at the moment!

And when women are profiled – they are often described in a derogatory way as though it’s a surprise that they are good at sport. Being first described as a “mother” or “wife of” or “ex model” rather than focussing on the fact that she is an athlete. They are often judged on their looks rather than their sporting performance. For men’s coverage, their sporting achievement comes first.

People say that the men’s game has a better atmosphere - this will only change when people are more open to watching women’s sport – but they can’t open up to the idea until there is better profile of women’s sport in the media.

In taking on this world record challenge, I hope to pave the way for my future children. My ten-year old niece is excited that I am climbing a mountain. She is a very girly girl and has joined the football and basketball teams at school and I don’t for one second think it has crossed her mind that she is playing a “boys” sport. This is how it should be, and I hope that won’t suddenly change. I have hope for the next generation. 

I believe women should have more choice in the way they live their life. I have been lucky enough to live in a society where I have been allowed to make my own choices. I recently married my wife, something that is frowned upon and illegal in many countries around the world. I am climbing this mountain for all the women who aren’t allowed freedom to be who they want to be in all aspects of their life.

If you would like to support Nikki to break a world record and inspire a new generation please donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/equal-playing-field-kilimanjaro

Player Profile | Petra Landers, Germany

Four time German champion and winner of the 1989 European Cup with the German National Team, Petra Landers brings a wealth of experience to our squad. She’s already broken one record by being in the first ever German women’s national football team in 1982 and here she tells us why she wants another record by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro with the Equal Playing Field squad.

If you want to support Petra break a world record and help her to continue to inspire girls around the world, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/petralanders

petra

I was born in 1962, and grew up with my two sisters on a worker´s estate in Bochum, a city in western Germany. I discovered soccer when I was six years old. I played soccer on the streets and fields with the boys in the neighbourhood. My first team was all boys, I played there for two years. Looking back I realise that everything I did was a bit unusual for girls or women. I learnt crafts in the school with the boys instead of sewing with the girls, I played soccer with the boys instead doing gymnastic with the girls. Later on I did vocational training as motor mechanic.

But even in Germany, it wasn’t socially acceptable for us to play for a very long time. The German Football Association banned girls and women’s soccer until 1970. Even my own boss tried to stop me from representing my country in the European Championships in 1989. I tried to take holiday to play — but he blocked my request. It was only when I threatened to quit my job that he let me go. And soon after we were crowned European Champions!

This was the first time the German national women’s team won the European Cup. And do you know what we were awarded by the German Football Association? A coffee set.

Now whenever I meet girls or women who want to play soccer, I do what I can to support and motivate them. I used to focus on supporting girls in Germany to play soccer, but these days I support girls and women in Zambia. Through soccer their self-esteem grows, and that helps to improve their role in society.

In my opinion, equality brings self-esteem, freedom and respect. That’s why I try to support women and girls to fight for equality and I do that through sport.

When I played professionally there were days when the pressure was almost too much and it threatened to roll into my personal life too. But that’s when I thought — just one more round, I can do this. Fight for you, fight for the team, for family. Be strong and go forward. I am a fighter, in sport and in life.

To sponsor Petra, and help get her up the mountain — please go to https://www.gofundme.com/petralanders

 

Player Profile | Jacqui Hannon, USA

We are proud to welcome Jacqui Hannon from Connecticut, USA to the squad – she is an elementary grade teacher hoping to inspire her children to pursue their passions and stand up for causes they believe in. A former top flight athlete she tells us here why she is joining the Mt Kilimanjaor climb

If you would like to help Jacqui be an inspiration to her students, please support her here: https://www.gofundme.com/equalplayingfield Jacqui is also raising funds to cover players in the Equal Playing Field squad who are unable to raise funds to travel.

I grew up in Woodbury, a small town in Connecticut. Before I could even walk, my sister Liz, who is 11 years older than me, held my hands and helped me to kick a soccer ball around the house. When I was younger, I always wanted to do exactly what Liz was doing. Because she played soccer, so did I. Liz is one of the strongest women that I know. So, for me to be good at soccer, was to be as strong as she was. My love for soccer started with my sister but it soon took on its own meaning in my life.

Soccer was one of the first sports that I learned to play and I was a decent player because was naturally very fast. Growing up I was constantly racing the boys. At high school, I would stay after practice and race the members of the boys’ soccer team. It was always so funny to see the looks on their faces when I beat them! I played competitively up through high school but switched to track as a top flight athlete for Boston College. But even though I was dedicating myself to a new sport, soccer has always meant more to me.

It was while I was at Boston College that I began to realize that the playing field was not equal. I witnessed teammates and fellow female athletes struggle to master their sport and battle with the idea of femininity. I, and all of my teammates struggled to excel at our sport while maintaining high self-esteem and a positive body image.

The way that women are portrayed in the media makes it difficult for athletic girls to feel beautiful. The media is so much more likely to focus on a female athlete’s appearance than a male athlete. Soccer taught me how to loose with humility, work as a member of a team, lead my peers, and have confidence in myself.  Sport has also helped me to view myself as strong and be happy with being strong. I am taking on this challenge to prove to others that being strong is feminine and beautiful!

At this time in my life, equality means that no matter what your race, gender, status or background you are able to achieve at the same level as those who are of equal skills as you. Now I am an elementary school teacher with the goal of becoming a youth soccer coach. I involve my students in the journey up Mount Kilimanjaro and hope to open up their minds to the inequalities that exist in our society. I hope that I can show them that they can stand up for a cause they believe in, that they can make a difference and that they will obtain careers based upon their skills and not their backgrounds. I especially hope to empower the young girls I teach and coach to be strong and confident in themselves.

It is my hope that the students that I will teach and coach from here on will learn from my journey and realize that their actions and voices matter. My goal is to empower my students and fellow educators to pursue their passions - and to believe that to be feminine is to be strong.

Help Jacqui get to the top! Support her and her teammates here: https://www.gofundme.com/equalplayingfield

Referee Profile | Jacqui Hurford (Née Melksham), Australia

Jacqui joins us from Australia and is managing our referees squad! A professional referee she officiated the opening match at the 2011 World Cup in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin with a crowd of 74 000! Here she tells us what it’s been like as a woman in black and why she is climbing Mt Kilimanjaro to break a world record.

If you would like to sponsor Jacqui to help her inspire new generations of female referees please visit: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/146697/help-jacqui-get-to-kilimanjaro

When I saw a game of football for the first time aged 9, let’s just say it was love at first sight, I was hooked. By the following week I had my $2 second-hand boots on though I can still recall the coach’s first words to me: ‘If girls want to play football, they have to play in the backline’!

As a young female referee coming through the ranks of local football, there was a constant battle with the male players and the spectators. Essentially, they thought that a woman’s place was either in the kitchen or between a man’s legs. It takes strong will and a thick skin to deal with this week in, week out. Some battles you win, some you may lose. But it’s the love of the game that keeps me coming back.

I grew up in a single parent family. My mother is my biggest inspiration and the strongest person I know. From her I learnt how to be strong, stand on my own two feet, fight for what I believe in and hard work.

But I had really been struggling of late whether to continue my journey in this beautiful sport. Meeting like-minded women through Equal Playing Field showed me that I was not alone in the everyday fight for equality.

The main issue women officials have is similar to players - simply making a living. There is one full-time elite referee coach but he is dedicated to training the male referees. Meanwhile I have done that same role for the last two seasons with only a small amount of remuneration. I am essentially a volunteer. I am hoping that will change for the next season.

Equality for me is getting the same recognition, remuneration and respect that the men do at all levels. It will be a great day when we are all recognized as football players, referees, coaches etc. and gender does not come into it.

I have been lucky enough to see a lot of the world through football, with lots of laughs, adventures and new experiences along the way. I have met many fantastic people who have enriched my life in many ways. I hope when I instruct, coach and assess, I inspire the girls/women around me to be the best they can be. If I want change in this sport, it starts with me and I hope that has a domino effect on others.

Want to know more about Jacqui? See this interview with Football Brisbane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d4moRT7jdA

Jasmine Henderson, USA joins the Equal Playing Field squad

Jasmine joins us from Los Angeles, California, where she most recently played for current National Champions, Santa Clara Blue Heat, and previously in Brazil. She tells us here what role soccer has played in her life and what she wants for her four-year-old son Paul. If you’d like to sponsor Jasmine and help her break a world record, please visit https://www.climbingmountpossible.com/

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and can still remember the look on my parents’ faces when, at 5 years old, I told them I wanted to play soccer, just like my older brother. I was deep into Barbies, the color pink and my mother’s make-up at the time.

I always enjoyed playing with the boys. But even though as I was as good as them, it was never okay in the yard to get beat by me. Many years later my second ACL injury happened at a co-ed tournament when a man wanted pay-back for when I’d beasted him off the ball. He fouled me hard. I cried. But not because of the pain. I cried that because of his hurt ego, I would be out of the game for 6-9 months with another road to recovery ahead. I was 22.

On the field, I get a window into who I truly am and can take that into any area of my life.

I’ve had many setbacks and my dreams have often cracked. It took me a while to remember the power I have within. I just needed to remember to believe.

Soccer absolutely changed my life. With soccer, I got to really see who I am and chisel away at myself to reveal what else is available. It has taught me so many life lessons. On the field, I get a window into who I truly am and can take that into any area of my life.

My family is amazing. They are and have always been so supportive. On the other hand, guys I have dated haven’t supported me when I’ve gone through selection processes or tried to pursue my career, ending things when I said that I wanted to play professionally or take it to the next level.

I have experienced adversity in sport, but even more so in becoming a single mother. I have experienced and witnessed the immense responsibility that is placed on a woman simply because she is the vessel carrying the child. My four-year-old son, Paul changed my life for the better in every way. Yet there were things that I had to go through and that many women go through that can cause us to question our worth or value.

I want my son Paul, who has autism, to live a life where he sees that ANYTHING is possible, no matter who you are, where you came from or what your current situation is. Anything is possible at any moment. I would love to pass on that my label as a “single mom,” as a “woman,” as an “American,” as a “mixed-raced” person or as a “soccer player” doesn’t define me. I am limitless, and so is he.

Climbing up this mountain and breaking this world record might be the inspiration that someone, male or female, boy or girl, is seeking so that they can climb their own mountain in life and do things they thought, or were told were impossible. It also shows what is possible when we are united – united as women and united as a people.

Want to sponsor Jasmine and help her break a world record? Sponsor her here: https://www.climbingmountpossible.com/

Player Profile | Josefina Martorell, Argentina

Meet Josefina Martorell from Buenos Aires in Argentina. At the age of fifteen she was playing football professionally and since then has played in many different countries, from the US to Congo to Niger to Spain to Afghanistan - wherever she was living at the time. She is part of an organisation called Futbol Militante, where women occupy public spaces usually reserved for men, to play football. They have football programmes in place for boys and girls as young as 3!

I grew up in Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. I had a very happy childhood playing lots of sports, always encouraged by my parents. My father would always ask me how many goals I scored at a tournament or at a game. If I said “four” he’d ask “why not five??”. It became a bit of a joke between us.

But even though girls are encouraged to play sports here when they are young, that falls away when they get older. When I grew a bit older the boys started calling me “marimacho” (tomboy). It made me stop playing with them - but it didn’t stop me playing.

I play football because I wouldn’t be myself if I wasn’t.

Equality is a very big question in an undefined time. Sport helps - in some way - tear down the walls of current social norms. Sport helps strengthen women and girls' self-esteem and helps challenge gender stereotypes that still block women from participating fully in social, professional and public life. Being naive I have the hope that we will soon reach equality in legal, economic, social and cultural terms, but being more realistic I simply hope that in Argentina, the levels of domestic violence decline; a woman is murdered every thirty hours here.

When I was nineteen I went travelling by myself across South America.  It was then that I realised my gender carried specific dangers – dangers to my life and dangers to my body. One particularly bad, dangerous experience happened with a man I met by chance. It was an experience unfortunately shared by many of my female friends so I didn’t make much of it. Years later I lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo where women experience many daily threats and fears; about 48 women are raped in DRC every hour. I realised that despite our cultural differences, as women, we shared specific experiences that made me feel close to them.

Climbing this mountain means a lot to me. Climbing this mountain represents the long struggle of women to realise their goals. Sports help make the fight for women’s empowerment a reality – if they can participate in sport, they can participate in any sphere of life they choose. I want to push myself beyond new boundaries – if I can accomplish this feat, it means I can accomplish many important things with my life.

Football plays a very important role in my life.  Through football I met some of my best friends and I even met my partner. I cannot imagine myself away from football for a long time. If a ball is rolling I am down for another match!

Do you want to sponsor Josefina and help her break a world record? Sponsor her here:

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/Josefina-Mount-Kili?utm_id=107&utm_term=YQ9bMKBW8

Player Profile | Introducing Esraa Awad, Egypt

Esraa joins the Equal Playing Field squad from Egypt. Esraa has played professionally since the age of 15 and was named Egyptian Footballer of the Year in 2010 with four Premier League titles under her belt. She has represented Egypt at the national level and participated in the African Cup of Nations last year. Here she tells us why she’s still fighting to level the playing field.

Want to help Esraa break a world record? Sponsor her here: https://www.gofundme.com/equal-playing-field-kilimanjaro

I was born and raised in Kuwait and was only 4 years old when I started to play football. When I was 12 I captained the boys football team - which was not easy. The boys on the team did not like a girl captaining the team. They only accepted me when I proved myself to be one of the best. I learned from a very young age that I will face a lot of obstacles being a girl - a girl who not only plays football, but a girl who actually plays better than a lot of boys too. But this just gave me more strength to carry on and made me understand that if I do not believe in myself than no one will.

I often see comments on social media telling me to “'go back to the kitchen". Everyone is starting to wonder when I will get married. Nine times out of ten interviewers will ask me if I’m not married because I play football.

Football is my passion. When I play, I feel free and that there are no limits.

The first time I played for the national team I felt like I was on the top of the world. It was something I dreamed of since I was 8 years old - a dream come true for me. My family was so proud and from that moment on football (for them and for me) went to a whole new level. We have many years of frustration because as a national team we haven't achieved much yet, but the highlight of my career was beating the Ivory Coast and qualifying for the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 18 years. Years of fighting finally paid off.

“Playing football as a Middle Eastern woman is - in and of itself - an act of advocacy”.

The key to making changes possible is for all women to fight for the same goal and not give up. One day, there will be equality. My family has always been very supportive. My father and my older brother were always proud of me and how talented I was and helped me get better. My sisters and my mother were also very supportive and are incredible advocates for women’s rights themselves.  I am climbing to honor the memory of my late sister, Nouran. She passed away just a couple of months ago. She always believed in me, and always encouraged me. My mother brought us up to make the best out of anything that comes our way and after this tragedy, I have made the choice to come out of this  as a stronger woman and a better human being. Climbing this mountain with other exceptional women will be a stepping stone in recovering from my grief.

Want to help Esraa break a world record? Sponsor her here: https://www.gofundme.com/equal-playing-field-kilimanjaro

Opportunity knocks - Including behind the scenes

One of the reasons we are taking on a world record here at Equal Playing Field is to call for an increase in sporting opportunities and access for women and girls. But access and opportunities in sport relate as much to sitting in the boardroom as they do to stepping out on the pitch. Off the pitch, women are frequently side-lined from decision-making roles in sporting bodies whether on a local or international level. We believe that diversifying boards would make for much more inclusive decisions relating to for example, how to allocate budgets; would generate better strategies for growing the game beyond existing demographics; and would ensure “equality” is paid more than just lip-service.

And so, it’s with pleasure we congratulate Women in Sport, in the UK on winning a major campaign battle. From April this year all publicly funded sports governing bodies must adhere to a minimum threshold of 30% gender diversity to receive public funding.

Nevertheless (to borrow the battle cry that Senator Jeff Sessions inadvertently created when silencing US Senator Elizabeth Warren back in February 2017) Women in Sport are persisting. Their new campaign seeks now to go “Beyond 30%”. Having found that the percentage of women on boards has stagnated at 30%, they are now focusing their attention on senior leadership roles (the percentage of which are taken by women having actually dropped since 2014) as well as establishing healthy leadership development channels from the lowest rungs to the top. Indeed, the lack of a “sustainable pipeline of female leadership talent within sport” is one of the three persistent problems that Women in Sport identified as inhibiting progress.

Sadly, of the 68 national governing bodies, the Football Association (FA) has the third lowest percentage of female non-executive directors – only worse than the Angling Trust and the British Taekwondo Council. That is not acceptable for a sport with such massive appeal to women and girls and one with such aspirations for growth.  Indeed, the FA has just launched a brand new, very welcome strategy to double the number of girls and women taking part in football by 2020 (a strategy heavily influenced by the presence of Sue Campbell in a senior FA leadership role). The FA would now do well to get more women into those leadership development channels and in a wide variety of decision-making roles as soon as possible so that they can best better understand exactly how to do just that.

How it all came about | A message from the co-founders

You can’t. Two words women and girls have heard for centuries – especially when it comes to sport. The everyday challenges faced by women and girls makes the simple enjoyment of a game like football an uphill battle for many.

Yet in June, in a game like no other, two football teams composed entirely of women from more than ten countries will walk out on a volcanic ash pitch at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro - an altitude higher than Everest Base Camp - to prove that women can and will. It’s set to break the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude game ever played.

Why?

“The playing field is not equal” Says Laura Youngson, co-founder of the Equal Playing Field initiative.

“We want to use the climb to highlight the gender inequalities faced today by women in sport. Women have fewer opportunities to play sport, get paid less when they do, and don’t get the same coverage or respect in the media. I don’t want to be having this same discussion with my future children.”

The stats speak for themselves: 1.8 million fewer women are active each month in the UK than men. Even in the US – arguably one of the best countries for sports equality – at age 14 girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys. And a vicious circle between poor media visibility and poor investment emerges. Women’s sport in the UK accounts for only 7% of total sports coverage and Women’s sport sponsorship accounted for only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013.

Something great

But it’s the everyday discrimination that grinds people down or gets people up.

“A lifetime of small interactions built up to an all-encompassing roar: an exclusion from a meeting because I was female; the guy being asked for explanations even though I was more qualified; the jest and so-called banter. I pass it off but kept thinking, it’s not just, it’s not equal, I can’t be complicit and stay quiet any longer”

“I remember getting a message at an un-nameable early hour from Laura - full of exclamation marks, and the words: I've had an idea!” says Erin Blankenship, Laura’s co-conspirator and Equal Playing Field’s other co-founder. “I knew it was going to be something great, was going to involve an adventure, and was something that I wanted to be a part of. Little did we know then how epic that idea would become.” 

Tangible impact

“I've loved and played football as long as I can remember and I wanted this project to reflect the love of the game above all else – sport has this capacity to transcend discrimination like little else. Doesn't matter who you are on a field. So as much as I revel in an opportunity to set a world record - in a game I love more than almost anything and around a cause I deeply believe in, it was important that we create tangible impact as well” says Erin.

So after breaking the world record, the women will disperse back across the planet and  work with local teams and organisations and run football clinics in ten countries to support the development and sustainability of women's football globally.

“Now we are looking at directly impacting thousands of girls and women in more than 14 countries, and supporting the women already fighting for their rightful place on the pitch at the global-elite level - which is exactly what we should be doing with this spotlighted opportunity.”

Dedication

Erin and Laura have started something unique and have generated huge enthusiasm and support for the project.

“Like many kids, I grew up reading the Guinness Book of World Records and felt inspired by their motto, ‘Dedication is what you need’. I found out that we can set a record that requires teamwork, adventure and most importantly, dedication. And I decided I would find 33 other adventurous women to do that with,” says Laura smiling.

Press Release - IWD

Women footballers to break world record for highest altitude game ever played. 

Two all-female international teams will battle it out at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro. They seek more than glory; they seek an “Equal Playing Field”.

In June 2017 two all-women football teams will battle it out for 90 minutes just below the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. If they succeed, they will break the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude football game ever played. The players, from more than ten countries, include former Canadian national Sasha Andrews, former German World Cup star Petra Landers, Afghan national Hajar Abufazl, former FIFA World Cup referee Jacqui Hurford (née Melksham) and pro players or competitive amateurs from Argentina, France, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico, the UK, US and the United Arab Emirates.

The Equal Playing Field initiative, formally launched today, March 8 2017, on International Women’s Day joins the movement to increase opportunity, equality and respect for women seeking to play or work in sport, and raise the profile of inspirational female sporting role models in the media. The week after the world record match, EPF will work with local teams and organisations in ten countries to host football clinics to support and advance women’s football development globally. The whole initiative will be covered and widely publicised by a team of award-winning filmmakers.

The problem is as simple and powerful as our love of the game,” said Erin Blankenship, Equal Playing Field co-founder. “The lack of equality for and representation of women in sport is appalling across the board. Equal Playing Field is taking aim at the systematic inequalities girls and women face that limit their opportunities, acceptance and value as athletes and individuals, starting with those on a football pitch.”

“Playing a football match at this altitude has never been done before. We want to break a record to inspire other women and girls to keep challenging the inequalities in sport”, said Laura Youngson, Equal Playing Field’s co-founder. “Sport brings friendships and community, commitment and leadership, and strength and health. No girl should miss out on those benefits because of her gender."

The women seek to take the fight for equality in sport to new heights, more than 2km higher than the world’s highest official stadium. EPF is still in talks with potential sponsors and partnering organizations. For more information about this initiative and how you can get involved, please see www.equalplayingfield.com or email equalplayingfield2017@gmail.com 

Welcome to the team!

Welcome to the team!

Zahra

One of the first players to join our team is Zahra Mahmoodi from Afghanistan. Zahra became the captain for the National team and has played in many national and international games. She was the first female in Afghanistan to become a FIFA-licenced coach and founded the under-14 girls' national team. In her efforts to bring more attention to female sports players, she met with John Kerry and later received Muhammad Ali's humanitarian Award. 

Zahra is a fantastic inspiration to women players everywhere and we're really excited to have her on the team!