Breaking Records and Barriers on the OL Academy Fields

The OL Academy fields are legendary. On just about any given day, the Academy fields are populated with future superstars, male and female, promising youngsters who are surely just a few years away from dominating European football, just like Alexandre Lacazette and Wendie Renard, or Karim Benzema and Amel Majri before them. And then there was me, for one day only, lacing up my spikes on those hallowed grounds.

Here’s a thing you should know: I don’t play soccer. Never have. This is shocking to people. Every time I launch into an impassioned discussion of women’s soccer (so roughly every half hour, give or take), I get the question: “Did you play?” Mind you, no one ever asks that when we’re discussing men’s ice hockey or American football, but that’s a discussion for another day. “Did you play?” they ask, and I tell them, “Never.”

That’s not entirely true though, to be honest. Around the age of seven, when I was still too young for basketball, and baseball was out of season, my parents signed me and my cousin up for a single season of recreational league soccer. It wasn’t really an enterprise designed to give us a good feel for the game. We used full size nets with three kids in goal at a time to compensate, and my most vivid memory of playing is that the team shirts had a funny smell that never quite went away. It did not instill a lifelong love of the game.

Repping the legend Michael Owen. Lyon loyalty came later.

That was the beginning and end of my illustrious soccer career. I’ve thought about trying my hand at it again, once or twice, Sunday league or something like that. Maybe you’re familiar with this delusion. Watch enough OL Féminin games, and I start to think, you know, if I really applied myself, I could do that too (I couldn’t.). But I never actually committed.  For one thing, soccer involves a lot of running. For another, literally everyone in the U.S. played soccer as a kid, so I’m already pretty far behind the curve.

Then I heard about Equal Playing Field’s World Record initiative in Lyon. If you aren’t familiar with Equal Playing Field, you should take a few minutes to learn about them. They’re a grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that women and girls around the world have the opportunity to play soccer: any girl, anywhere. Two years ago, the Equal Playing Field crew climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and set the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude soccer game ever played. The following year, they traveled to Jordan, where, alongside the Dead Sea, they set the Guinness World Record for lowest altitude soccer game ever played. Equal Playing Field came to Lyon during the Women’s World Cup with their eyes set on yet another World Record: largest soccer game ever played.

And that’s how I found myself lacing up a pair of cleats at the famed OL Academy in Meyzieu under a blistering sun in the middle of a record heat wave. I was going to be in Lyon anyway for the World Cup, and I like cool sports events and good causes, and they did say all skill levels were welcome. Before I left, I asked my father and sister—both of whom actually have played soccer—for some tips. “Don’t kick the ball with your toe,” my sister said. “Maybe jog first,” my dad suggested. Great. Helpful.

The OL Academy is not what you would call easy access from Lyon-proper. It took two metro lines, a lengthy tram ride, and a healthy hike beyond that before I found the back entrance to the Academy fields. They were gorgeous, stretching out across the expansive complex, tidy looking fields in front of long buildings plastered with the Olympique Lyonnais crest. I was assigned to the Red Team, handed my jersey (Number 0847, for those keeping score at home) and socks and pointed in the direction of the field. “Whenever you’re ready, just go to the sideline and line up as a sub.”

There were a handful of other Red Team folks just arriving by the benches on Terrain No. 5, so I plopped down vaguely in their vicinity. “Are you with the American Outlaws group?” one asked me brightly. “Nah, just me,” I told her. It would be another half hour or so before I felt emotionally ready to tell them I had been cheering for France on Friday night. The ribbing was (mercifully) mild. I’m still recovering from the loss.

Suiting up by the benches

For the World Record to be broken, each player must play at least 10 minutes and touch the ball once. The players on the overnight shifts put in four-hour stints, but midday wasn’t nearly so onerous. The line of Red Team players was lengthy, so we sprawled out in the shade waiting for our opportunity to get on the field, comparing notes on where in the U.S. everyone was from. There were players from much farther away too–Saudi Arabia and Lesotho, for example. As the group of waiting players dwindled, an organizer called for two more Red Team players. One of the Outlaws jumped up, the other under the tent hesitated before waving for me to go ahead. 

Check in, line up, pour some water over your head, and wait some more. I shuffled forward in the line. “One Red, one Blue,” the fourth official called, and I stepped up to the sideline. Standard FIFA checks ensued. Shin guards, number, and no jewelry check. Wait for the exiting player to reach the sideline so her number can be checked and recorded too. I reached to high-five her like the pros do, but she stumbled off in search of some water. It was 95 degrees under a baking hot sun, after all.

A teammate from the American Outlaws

The game was 5 a-side, and it wasn’t like we had planned positions or anything. I briefly contemplated volunteering as goalkeeper—a sort of homage to Sarah Bouhaddi—before coming to my senses. No one was really launching screamers, but goalkeeper still felt like a lot of pressure, even with the Red Team sitting on a 25-goal or so lead (just like an OL Féminin match!). Instead, I took up a post on the left wing, in what I like to think of as the Eugénie Le Sommer position, and set about trying to do things it felt like Eugénie Le Sommer would do. 

It was a good strategy in practice, even if the execution didn’t always match. I’m pretty sure my first pass attempt was intercepted and turned into a chance on goal for the Blue Team (saved), but my second pass found its target, and then we were off and running. A minute or two into my shift, I split two defenders, controlled a pass (!), and found myself on the edge of the box with just the goalkeeper to beat (to be fair, only the goalkeeper was allowed inside the box). I aimed my first shot for the far corner . . . and watched it whistle wide of the goal. I threw back my head dramatically like proper goalscorers do when they miss.

The game carried on, with new players subbing in periodically. I developed a scouting report for myself. My first touch, it turns out, is pretty heavy. Something to work on for the future. But my teammates and I dominated possession, and every now and then we put together some passing sequences that were—dare I say—OL-esque in their execution. The finishing was, well, hit and miss. We put a few goals on the board, and by “we,” I definitely don’t mean me. I put another shot wide off what would have been a nice one timer, and at one point (inadvertently, I promise) I attempted to lob the six-year-old goalkeeper. He saved it, to substantial applause. Somewhere in there I had a nifty outside turn to lose a defender that I think Amel Majri would have been proud of, and as for any so-called errant passes, hopefully the critics will choose to apply the same rule I always apply to Dzsenifer Marozsán: There are no bad Maro passes, just teammates not smart enough to see what Maro sees.

The announcer declared over the microphone that we were down to the very last sub of the game. They called off the girl who had taken the field just ahead of me. Ten more minutes. I would stay on through the final whistle. Maggie Murphy, the co-founder and director of communications for Equal Playing Field (and new general manager of Lewes FC), took the field to raucous applause.

Legend has it that two years ago, at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, with time winding down in a 0-0 match, Maggie found herself with a clear opportunity on goal—a sitter, a few people called it. But with the game winner on her foot, she missed the shot and the game ended scoreless. So as soon as she took the field in Lyon, the mission was clear: get Maggie a goal.  Easier said than done, though.  We tried to lay it off to her, but Maggie’s a selfless player and none of us were really eager to wing the ball at the (literal) six-year-old in net, and the announcer continued to count down the final minutes.

With under a minute to go, a Blue Team defender played the ball in the box, and the ref awarded a penalty. Calls for VAR were largely ignored. The crowd roared as Maggie stepped up to take it. “What should I do?” she asked as the miniature keeper was directed towards his line. “Score,” one of my teammates assured her. “Put it in the corner,” I advised. She did, scoring goal #400 for the Red Team, and we embraced at the top of the box.

We lined up for the Blue Team’s kickoff, and with one final tap of the ball, the ref’s whistle blew three times. Game over. I dropped to my knees, pumping my fists to celebrate the victory. Come on–you can’t tell me you haven’t dreamed of doing similarly at the end of an important game. Maggie was first to me, and we hugged as the crowd rushed the field. 

Dramatic footage from the final moments

For ten or so minutes, a huge group of us jumped around the center of the field chanting. “EPF! EPF! EPF!” “Olé, olé, olé, olé, olé, olé!” “Any Girl! Anywhere!” We sang “We Are The Champions!” I retrieved a much-needed bottle of water and a medal. “We Have Made History * On A Fait L’Histoire!” it proclaims. We circled up, and the directors of Equal Playing Field said a few words about how important this event was, how we all aim to ensure that every girl and woman around the world can play the sport she loves, and how we can all head back to our own communities and continue building opportunities for women and girls in sports.

The previous record for the largest 5 a-side game was set in 2012 by Petts Wood FC. They had 676 players. After 69 hours of continuous play, Equal Playing Field’s world record attempt checks in at 807 players, and a final score of 400-369 in favor of the Red Team, pending official results. We now await approval by Guinness World Records, likely to come in the next few months.

The world record game included players of all ages. There were teams of football journalists, members of the British Parliament, and even legends of the game, including Sandrine Dusang. Just for good measure, Equal Playing Field also separately broke the world record for most nationalities in a single 11 a-side game, with over 50 countries represented. And in between breaking world records, Equal Playing Field also hosted numerous workshops for football fans, coaches, players, and referees, and put together an Equality Summit aimed at tackling the toughest issues in the game today.

The record was largest game, not longest game, but it’s a nice video from OL

Over the years to come, I’m sure a lot of superstars-to-be, male and female, will take to the OL Academy fields. I won’t be on that list. But for one blazing hot afternoon, 22-plus years after I last touched a soccer ball in anything resembling a competitive game, I could imagine myself alongside the legends, ball at my feet, eyes for goal. Any girl, anywhere, should be able to do the same. I’m glad to have played my small part making history, alongside 806 of my closest friends, as we push towards that goal.

As Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg told ESPN FC, “It’s impossible to play football in a world among men and not fight for equality. We’re all feminists. Playing football can be damn harsh, but every day is a fight for equality. That’s a fact.” Thanks to Olympique Lyonnais—a longtime supporter of equality in footballing opportunity—and Equal Playing Field for being a part of that fight and welcoming so many from around the world to gear up as well.

To find out more about Equal Playing Field, check out their website and Twitter page. Find me on Twitter (@AScavs) to ask me about my experience in the World Record game!

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