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Football Reporting


smash Guinness world records and challenge soccer’s gender equality problem

Deena Rahman’s lifelong love of football has taken her from England to Egypt, Bahrain to Tanzania and even further afield. In 2017, she travelled to Mt. Kilimanjaro with 32 women from 20 countries — with ages ranging from 15 to 55 and skill ranging from pro to amateur — to climb the mountain and set the Guinness World Record for the highest game of football ever played. They competed on a volcanic ash pitch at nearly 18,760 feet. In 2018, she was invited to Jordan by Prince Ali to compete in a game of football at the lowest point in the world, the Dead Sea, at 1,412 ft below sea level.

These are two of the five world records she holds. Most recently, in Dec. 2020, she set the record for most penalties taken in 24 hours. Her other two records come from participating in the biggest five-a-side game — which saw over 800 players participate over five days, including a seven-hour overnight stint from Rahman’s team, the Legendary Eggs — and playing in an 11-a-side game with the most number of nationalities playing.

At first glance, Rahman’s life seems to be that of an enthusiastic overachiever. She was one of the first women to be paid to play football in Europe, with Fulham in 2000, and has played for two national teams (England and Bahrain). The 37-year-old, who still plays football with the Bahrain national side, now runs her own academy with her husband Paul after spending earlier parts of her career working clubs on their academy development. When she arrived in Bahrain in 2010, where she lives now, she set up a women’s league and attracted teams from neighbouring countries. Last year, she decided to do the London to Brighton ultramarathon.

Few would offer themselves up to kick a ball repetitively into a net over 24 hours, but Rahman’s motivations for taking on these records are twofold. On a personal level, she loves to push herself. A self-confessed owner of “itchy feet,” she is always looking for her next adventure. Her other motivator, however, is perhaps the more important one. Rahman is on a mission, alongside those at the nonprofit organisation Equal Playing Field, to show girls and women that there’s no challenge they can’t take on.

“We’ve got five world records, but each of them is more about the messages we can bring across through those records,” Rahman told ESPN.

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That message varies depending on where Equal Playing Field are. When the group went to Jordan in 2018, they went into refugee camps and set up football lessons for about 300 girls who “would never get the opportunity to play football,” Rahman said.

“It’s very strict in some of the areas there, especially when they get to 9, 10 years of age. They’re at home and they don’t play sport, so it was amazing to see all these girls completely buzzing around. We were playing in some really remote places where we just had cones and sand, and it was really touching to see them enjoying themselves and doing exercise and playing football with us.”

Over the 24-hour period of her penalty-taking record, Equal Playing Field broadcasted a series of talks based around their core principles of advancing gender equality, supporting existing organisations that help girls in sport and amplifying the work happening around the world in pursuit of this goal. This includes everything from running global camps to improving the quality of women’s football, to provided assistance to locally based groups like clubs, academies, charities and non-governmental organisations within their own programmes.

For her own part, Rahman had a team of 24 goalkeepers to help her set the record, which included players from the Tekkers Academy she runs with her husband, mothers of her players and teammates from the Arabian Celts, her Gaelic football team in Bahrain.

Rewinding the clock to Rahman’s early playing days also helps to explain her passion for advancing the women’s game. Born in Fulham, England, she started playing when she was seven and initially, she was the only girl there. She trained with the boys until they started a girls’ team a short time later.

“I think it helped me develop at a better rate,” she said of the experience. “I had to be tough, I had to be strong. Thankfully I was good and I improved.”

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When Rahman was 15, she went to England for trials and was selected to play for their Under-18 side, where she got 18 caps and played in two European Championships. She also continued to develop with Fulham and was one of the first women in Europe to be paid for playing football when the team turned professional in 2000.

“The club were magnificent. We trained at the training ground with the men, we got all the support we needed,” she said.

“The setback was that it was too early, to be honest. We weren’t in the top division either, and money obviously doesn’t just send you into the top division, either, so we were in the equivalent of the third division. So as much as it was like a turning point in women’s football, it was a little bit ridiculed because we were the pro team in the third division who were beating teams 25-0, and obviously that’s not realistic.”

Fulham remained pro for three years, but then transitioned to being semi-professional — cash flow became an issue — before retreating to amateur and then the team being scrapped entirely in 2006. While the introduction of pro contracts was exciting for the sport, the transition also gave Rahman pause for thought.

“I think a lot of it came down to the fact that I was elevated into the England squad quite early, and when Fulham went professional, it was a massive opportunity and it was brilliant, but we attracted a lot of good strong older players,” she said. “I just struggled quite a bit with self-confidence… so when I did my degree in sports science, I could relate to a lot of the psychology stuff.”

With her struggles continuing, Rahman’s father eventually brought her to his home country of Egypt, where she played for a year before snapping her ACL, which forced her to return to England for surgery and rehab. While there, she started doing some coaching work with Arsenal when the opportunity came to go to Bahrain.

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This five-day trip changed the course of Rahman’s life. While there, she secured a coaching job and soon made the move with her husband, Paul. Immediately, she set out to raise the profile of women’s football in the country.

“Obviously, it being in the Middle East, there weren’t that many girls playing football,” Rahman said. “There was a national team here, but apart from that, there wasn’t much going on. So one of my main, driving passions was that I was going to change that and thankfully, I did.”

As an academy coach, she went from mentoring two girls to over 100 in the first couple of years. She started the country’s first women’s league, which is now governed by the Bahrain FA, and saw teams travel from Saudi Arabia to compete given the lack of opportunities at home. Always on the hunt for her next challenge, she and her husband set up their own academy, Tekkers, in 2015. Based in eight locations, they have 10 full-time staff and over 200 girls playing alongside their boy’s programme.

“We have girls-only classes, and they are full up and completely buzzing. A couple of them play in our squads, so they actually play in our teams with the boys,” she explained. “I totally stand by it as I think it really helps your football. There’s just that bit of speed element, a bit of strength that you need to use, and also that confidence that you’re good enough to do that.”

As well as coaching these girls through their playing careers, she also sees it as her responsibility to lead by example, which is how she found herself taking on the world record for most converted penalties in 24 hours. Originally, she had wanted to take on a record that would involve a team, but regulations around preventing the spread of coronavirus made this more difficult. In the end, they settled on the penalties as she could still include a number of people, albeit in a safe, responsibly distanced way.

The official record stood at 1,111, with another, unofficial one at 2,075. Rahman set herself the target of scoring 100 penalties an hour. She would kick for 50 minutes before taking a 10-minute break and then restarting again at the start of the next hour. This should have brought her tally to approximately 2,400 penalties; however, within four hours she’d beaten the official record. A couple more hours, and she cruised past the unofficial one. When she hit the second mark, her husband Paul politely suggested that she could stop and go home to sleep, but Rahman had no desire to.

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“I just felt I had this responsibility that I wasn’t going to stop because I had all these people that I had put into my team,” she said. “Even if it was in the middle of the night, I had got them to commit to coming out at 3 a.m. and being a goalkeeper. There was also the live feed and all that. So there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to continue.”

In the end, she scored 7,876 penalties, breaking the record by an astounding 6,765.

“I didn’t practice penalties,” she said. “Some people were like are you not going to practice taking penalties and I was like: ‘No, it is fine. They’ll get weaker, probably, but I’ll just go with it.’

“I did get fatigued. My legs were getting really, really heavy, and it was getting tougher as it went on. My shots were getting weaker.”

Heading into the new year, Rahman is determined this won’t be her last world record. When playfully asked if playing on the moon might be next, she paused before breaking out into a massive grin and responding: “That’s actually a good idea.”

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