These Female Soccer Stars Are Hoping To Move Mountains For The Next Generation Of Players — By Climbing Their Own

The initiative hopes to level the playing field for women athletes.

To everyone who believes that women can't play soccer, Jordanian player Yasmeen Shabsough has one response: "Give me a ball and I can show you."

This June, Shabsough will join professional female soccer players from all over the world as part of an initiative called Equal Playing Field to attempt an ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro and then holding of a 90-minute match below the summit in an effort to raise awareness of the metaphorical mountains women face to be recognized as professional athletes. If successful, the match will be the highest altitude game of soccer ever recorded. 

"The lack of equality for and representation of women in sport is appalling across the board," Erin Blankenship, Equal Playing Field co-founder, said in an official statement. "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."

The player-climbers come from countries all over the world. Some have made World Cup appearances. Some have grown up in a country where a girl playing soccer still sometimes evokes questioning looks from neighbors. One holds the record for most career appearances in South African soccer. But the idea behind the Equal Playing Field initiative is simple: ensuring access to a game that each of them has fallen in love with. 



For Shabsough and teammate Haneen Al-Khateeb, their desire to play soccer wasn't always something that their society understood or respected. Al-Khateeb remembers when they both started playing for the Jordanian youth national team, they would play matches often to almost-empty stadiums. 

"At first, it was not acceptable," Al-Khateeb told A Plus. "People's mentality that they have in their minds that football is for boys. We would play a friendly match at that time, and we played with no crowds. We had no support but our families'. We had to cheer for each other." 

Support for the team began growing when the team, winning. With the help of Prince Ali, who championed women's sports in the country and helped fight a FIFA ban on wearing a hijab during games, more people started accepting their all-female national team as a success. But for Shabsough and Al-Khateeb, the support that they value the most has always come from their families. 

"They let me believe in myself and go after whatever I wanted," Al-Khateeb said. "When I told them about Kilimanjaro, they freaked out totally. But they never stopped me." 

Yasmeen Shabsough via Equal Playing Field

With only a few weeks until they leave to meet their new teammates in Tanzania, Al-Khateeb and Shabsough have been hiking with altitude masks and doing CrossFit training in preparation for the climb — when they're not playing soccer or studying for their university exams. 

A few days after they finish their semester, they will board a flight to Tanzania, a country neither has been before, to climb a mountain, something neither has met before, with a team of women almost none of whom they've met before. But they couldn't be more excited. 

"I'm in shock actually," Shabsough said. "I think, yeah, it's all fun but it will get canceled. And it's happening and it's real, and we are going to play this game."

Haneen Al-Khateeb via Equal Playing Field
Haneen Al-Khateeb via Equal Playing Field

What the two are most excited about is meeting the other players, hearing about what it's like to play soccer in other countries and "getting a new family," as Al-Khateeb put it.

"We have different experiences, different languages, different everything, all together in this same journey," Shabsough said. "Football brought us together."

Shabsough maintains that her love affair with football was never a choice. She grew up the only girl in her family and, as none of her brothers or male cousins were interested in playing with Barbies, she played soccer with them in the streets. Today, Shabsough dreams of one day opening her own soccer academy. 

"I just really love football," Shabsough said. "I love it. I don't know why. Playing it, teaching it, being part of it. I love it."

Cover image via Timaldo / Shutterstock | Equal Playing Field

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