Equal Playing Field: Challenging the Industry Through World Records
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that gender inequality has long been an issue that has plagued the sports world. But you may be surprised to hear how a non-profit grassroots initiative, Equal Playing Field, is challenging that disparity and fighting for progress for girls and women globally.
Many great ideas have come at moments of great mundanity – the idea to break a World Record came to Laura Youngson about three years ago whilst watching TV. Frustrated by lack of funding, visibility and insulting remarks concealed as ‘banter’, casual player and co-founder Youngson recruited her friend Erin Blankenship, who has played professionally for the likes of Crystal Palace and West Ham, to establish Equal Playing Field in what she envisioned as “a lifetime of small interactions built up to an all-encompassing roar”.
Maggie Murphy, the director of communications who has been with EPF since 2016, tells me Youngson felt that to draw attention to women’s football they had to do something big; “If we climb many mountains every single day just to play the game we love, why not climb one big one and bang a drum whilst doing so?”. This led to Youngson filing a request with Guinness three years ago to break the record for playing the highest game of football.
The journey to break the record was no walk in the park. The event didn’t have any corporate sponsors or financial backing, and all of the organisers were either full-time students or working full-time. Murphy explained that “everything that happened did so because individuals sacrificed time with friends and family, skipped lunch at work, were on team calls at 1am and called in favours with colleagues.” Lack of financial support also brought the challenge of flying enough players and organisers to Tanzania, with four players unable to make the trip in the last week due to visa delays and denials – let alone the hurdle they faced of getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Murphy explains the lack of cushy financial backing is what made the event organic, with each individual putting all their time and effort as well as their faith into a ‘risked-filled venture’, fuelled by a collective understanding and call for action – “Opportunity, equality, respect. Nothing more, nothing less”.
Despite the challenges, EPF descended on Mount Kilimanjaro on 24th June 2017, with 32 females ranging from professional and competitive players as well as graduates of sports charities from over 20 countries, to play an 11-a-side FIFA standard football match on volcanic ash, ultimately breaking the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude game of football at 5,714m.
Just last year, EPF broke another World Record, this time by playing at the lowest point on earth in Jordan by the Dead Sea. Like their previous feat, EPF’s Jordan expedition brought in players from 27 countries, more than half from the Middle East and Asia, from the grassroots to the elite, all in an effort to expand opportunities for women in sport. And they expanded these opportunities themselves in Jordan alongside the record attempt by running football camps for around 700 girls who had never kicked a ball before. Murphy indicates this was integral to the ethos of this particular attempt, saying “We feel that our first World Record was about demanding respect from people who constantly try to put challenges in the paths of female footballers. The Jordan Quest was about opening the door and widening opportunity to girls less fortunate than some of us.”
This year? It’s all about equality. With the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup just days away, EPF are looking to break a third World Record to coincide with the tournament. Due to media coverage of women’s football being amplified yet short-lived, EPF are hoping to bring awareness to women’s football causes such as the absence of football academies and substandard training facilities, just two of the factors that significantly hold women’s sport back over generations. They will be bringing 3500 amateur and professional players from more than 60 countries to play in a 5-day football marathon, appropriately titled ‘The Festival of Football’.
The event will see women and girls of all ages, abilities, walks of life, cultures and religions to show: