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St Andrew’s teacher Lisa Handy and ex Hua Hin resident Ashley Pitocco Faith play in highest altitude football game ever!

by Lisa Handy with photos by Matthew Pendergast, Dana Rosiger & Laura Youngson

In May 2007, a high-altitude football controversy arose when FIFA introduced a temporary ban on international matches at more than 2,500 metres above sea level, citing concerns about players' health and the "unfair" advantage to acclimatised home teams. The ruling meant that Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia would be prevented from hosting FIFA World Cup qualifiers in their own capital cities. However the ban was revoked in May 2008 and 10 years later, on 24th June 2017, 32 women from 20 countries assisted by a medical team lead by Doctor Dana Levin of Nasa, 3 documentary and TV crews and a body of over 320 guides and porters, climbed Mount Kilimajaro with the aim of breaking a world record for the highest game of altitude football ever played.

At the backbone of such an incredible challenge and feat of exploration are two women, Laura Youngson and Erin Blankenship who formed the Equal Playing Field Initiative off the back of a late night conversation regarding inequality for females in sport, from grassroots to elite level. The World Record match was part of Equal Playing Field’s “Altitude Football Project” in partnership with Football for Peace. The game, involving team Glacier and team Volcano, which ended in a 0-0 draw was just the start. The partnership aims to run a series of football clinics in 25 countries across the world in the next 2 years in the lead up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Two of the 32 women who achieved the double world record for the highest altitude game ever played and the highest women’s game were British international teacher Lisa Handy, of St Andrew’s International school, Rayong and ex Hua Hin resident Ashley Pitocco Faith, an American/Thai national who has played pro in Sweden and Belgium. The women played a full 90 minute, 11-a-side regulation game, officiated by female FIFA referees at an altitude of 5729m, more than 1.75km higher than the highest stadium in the world (Club Bamin Real Potosi in Bolivia which is at an altitude of 3960metres.The motto of the EPF initiative is “Equality, opportunity, respect, nothing more, nothing less”.

We set a world record to draw attention to the inequalities faced by women in football and sport and inspire the next generation to participate and promote the game. The discrimination, intimidation, and preclusion of women and girls in sport makes the simple enjoyment of a game like football an uphill struggle for many. Even those females who have proven themselves on every world stage remain under recognized and under-valued for their achievements. Every woman on the climb was a strong, resilient character, but for each one of us there are a thousand women or girls who stopped playing many, many years ago. You shouldn’t have to be strong, resilient and have a thick skin to play football. I climbed Kilimanjaro to demonstrate that the adventurous soul reaches for a goal and does not proclaim a challenging experience as an ordeal. Adversity teaches us to look within AND look beyond, only through adversity can we understand the power of change. When your cause is greater than the strength you think is inside of you, your strength multiplies to fit the cause. The peaceful fight for equality for women in sport has many roads yet to be bridged.

I climbed Kilimanjaro with an incredible bunch of humans regardless of gender, who will continue to raise awareness of women’s rights both on and off the pitch through courage, humility, resilience, persistence and passion in order to create a brighter future for the generations to come. I just happened to have the best time of my life and find a new family in the process !

EPF are looking to partner with Jump!Foundation Bangkok and St Andrews International Schools, Cognita Group, two organisations that are already doing inspiring things with local communities, to run a clinic for women and girls that wouldn’t usually have access to the game in order to inspire more females to play football in Thailand. Watch out for Movie Premier Evenings locally of the beIN Sports ‘Equal Playing Field Documentary’ or find it online at beIN Sports. You can follow the organizations future projects through twitter, facebook and Instagram @equalplayingfieldinitiative.