On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the windows of the Brooklyn Expo Center rumbled with the sound of drums, vuvuzelas and cowbells as 24 women’s 5v5 soccer teams from all over the world gathered on the hard courts for the Global Goals World Cup.
The UN-sponsored tournament, which took place on Sept. 19, was dedicated to raising public awareness of important global issues, with the winning team taking home a trophy that symbolized their commitment toward creating world peace.
Many of the players participating in the tournament wouldn’t call themselves athletes, per se. Most were activists playing for a cause that was close to their heart. For example, Mamas United—who sported playful plastic baby bumps beneath their jerseys—were fighting for maternal health, while performance group Girl Be Heard put on their soccer kicks to advocate for quality education.
But one team in particular, the Sports Equality Enforcers, featured a rather motley crew of current and former pro athletes and a bunch of their friends who were all playing in the name of gender equality in sports. The stacked roster could’ve seemed unfair to their amateur rivals. But adoring fans and players from opposing teams didn’t seem to care. Instead they asked their idol for picture or a selfie.
U.S. national team soccer star Lori Lindsey, who had helped the Americans earn second place at the 2011 World Cup, casually sat on the sidelines among the chairs decorated with so many green balloons it appeared if she were in a scene from Disney Pixar’s “Up.”
When asked if she was planning on demolishing everyone on court, Lindsey simply laughed.
“We’ll see,” she told Excelle Sports. “Looks like [we have] a good group of players and it’s a fun team. I’m just happy to be here and play.”
Beside Lindsey stood UFC fighter Tecia “Tiny Tornado” Torres, who currently holds a 9-1 record in the strawweight division. The 5-foot-1 martial artist said that she actually likes to play with her indoor soccer team in Denver, Colo., when she’s not busy knocking her opponents around the Octagon. And the last of the American stars was two-time World bronze medalist in wrestling Sally Roberts, who had never played soccer before but had previously played something like it called “murderball.” No, it’s not the sport played in the wheelchairs, just a game played among wrestling friends, Roberts said. We were assured that no one would be killed during the evening’s activities.
In the first six-minute match, Lindsey ripped a shot past the four-foot net, shocking a rather inexperienced goalkeeper by the velocity of the strike. Lindsey missed the net and the keeper’s head.
“I feel bad for the goalie,” a fan gasped.
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For a moment, Lindsey didn’t hold back. But for the rest of the game, she did stumble and lose the ball here and there, and you could tell she was mainly there for the cause.
Post-USWNT stardom, Lindsey has become very involved in sports activism, particularly in bringing awareness to LGBTQ rights.
In 2013, she combined with fellow USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe to advocate for the Human Right’s Campaign’s “Love Conquers Hate” initiative. She is now a pro ambassador for Athlete Ally a nonprofit organization that works to end homophobia and transphobia within the athletic community.
But Lindsey’s efforts go beyond the focus of LGBTQ inclusion. In fact, she most recently broke a record in the name of female empowerment. In June, she joined the Equal Playing Field Initiative and climbed 18,796 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro to play in a soccer match at the highest elevation ever recorded. The goal was to bring awareness to gender inequality in sports, and Lindsey claims the experience was (literally) breathtaking.
“That soccer game was amazingly hilarious as well,” she said. “It was so hard to breathe up there and I basically stood in the middle the whole time.”
As the Enforcers blanked their first opponent 6-0, Roberts stood on the sidelines cheering on her team.
“EQUALITY IS A TEAM SPORT!” she shouted.
Roberts had decided that she wasn’t going to play that night, but she knew that the event was about much more than just a couple of soccer games.
“This was a fantastic opportunity to come out and bring together women from different arenas and disciplines to advocate for gender equality,” she said.
Roberts is the founder of Wrestle like a Girl, an organization that is dedicated to promote female wrestling and provide more opportunities for girls to wrestle across the country. Torres, who’s an ambassador for Wrestle Like a Girl, is also very active in helping to empower young women who aspire to be fighters. She said it’s exciting to come to these events to see how much progress has been made in women’s sports and meet more people who want to push it further.
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“Growing up, I was pretty much the only girl in Karate class,” she said. “Twenty-three years later, young girls are looking up to women in combat sports, which is amazing. I remember when Ronda Rousey opened up the doors in the UFC and now there are little girls dressing up as Ronda Rousey for Halloween. I love it.”
With Tecia on defense and Lindsey on offense, the Enforcers covered the field well in their next two matches. But there were other players on the team that made the Enforcers particularly special—players that the average passerby might not have recognized. Shamila Kohestani, the captain of Afghanistan’s first-ever women’s soccer team and 2006 winner of ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, stood up top as a forward. Her former Afghan teammate Yasamin Alam manned the goal.
— SportsEqualityNow (@SportsEqltyNow) September 19, 2017
When Kohestani was a young girl growing up under the Taliban’s strict regime, women were not allowed to receive any formal education or go outside without wearing a burqa or the supervision of a male guardian. Futsal—a version of indoor soccer popular in the Middle East—provided an escape for Kohestani, who could play inside with other young girls without receiving too much harassment from the general public. Playing on these small courts in Brooklyn reminded her of those early days, she said.
“There weren’t many outdoor 11v11 fields available for women to play soccer,” said Kohestani, who first fell in love with soccer on a futsal court. “When the Taliban left, playing soccer was a freedom that I never had. I was doing something that was completely outrageous.”
In 2006, retired USWNT midfielder Julie Foudy heard Kohestani’s story and was inspired to pay for her to come to the States and get her high school diploma from a school in New Jersey. At the Global Goals event, Kohestani and her compatriot Alam were playing in honor of the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy.
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“I came to this event because as a woman growing up in Afghanistan, I saw how much [soccer] impacted me and my teammates,” said Kohestani. “It shows how powerful soccer can be.”
At the end of the day, the Enforcers lost the trophy to a colorful team from Kenya, whose traditional black and red kanga uniforms were a hit among the photographers. Team Moving the Goalposts can now say they are the “Soccer-Activists of the Year,” and they hope to gain more media attention as they help young girls in their hometowns escape the pains of poverty through sport.
Despite the loss, Lindsey and the rest of the Enforcer squad were surrounded by too many balloons to be deflated. They walked away with the option to choose their consolation prize: Tickets to the Global Citizens concert in NYC or cozy wool blankets.
“When we played the Kenyan team, obviously they’d been playing for awhile, and if we were going to lose it was going to be for them,” said Lindsey. “It’s become apparent that women’s soccer has evolved. As a retired player, I think it’s important now to pay it forward and help progress women’s sports.”