March 8, 2011 marked the centenary of International Women’s Day. Many cities and villages in Mali, and around the world, celebrate the role of women in their society on this day and talk grandly about how they will work to increase equality among men and women and will provide additional opportunities for women within their respective localities.

This year, my village did not have a big celebration, which I discovered is because they rotate hosting the party with nearby towns.  Next year, I hope to get to the nearby city that will be hosting, because Malian parties are always a good time – music, dancing, special clothes, good food and cold drinks!

What they did do in my village was host a soccer game among the high school girls.  The 10th and 11th graders played against the 12th graders in a match that ended up being a really fun time both for the girls and the people of the village who attended.

The practices for the match started about a week before the game.  I asked several of the high school teachers, who I’m friends with, if I could join in and they were happy to have me.  So, for a couple of weeks I pushed the rewind button and was taken back to my high school soccer days.  All of the girls on my team (the 10th and 11th grade team) were new to playing soccer and, quite frankly, to playing organized sports, period.  Although it was new for them, I was really impressed by their ability to pick up the basics and play together.  I know that if they had more training they would be really good!

On game day, the girls took to the field, wearing jerseys provided by a local businessman.  The 10th and 11th grade donned white, with green sleeves and the 12th graders played in red.  Mimicking the Champions League games that are being shown on Malian television right now, we walked out onto the field in two single file lines and were greeted by the game sponsors.  After a quick talk from the referee, a pep talk from our coach, and a cheer for victory, we took to the pitch.

The whistle blew on the rocky, dirt field and the game was underway.  There were plenty of close calls on both ends, but at halftime the score was 0-0.  After downing water and locally-made sugary juices, we were back out on the field.

The girls were not taking this game lightly.  It reminded me of playing powder puff football in high school, where the 9th and 10th graders would take on the 11th and 12th graders.  The older girls have to prove that their seniority reigns both on and off the field, while the younger girls try to show that they, too, can be big gals on campus.

At the end of regular time, the score was still 0-0.  Without an overtime period, the game went directly into a shootout.  We had prepared for this during practice, but the additional level of pressure was clear on the faces of all the girls.  A crowd of both young and old gathered behind the rusted goal frame which stood without a net.  The goalie stepped into position, biting her fingernails, and the first kicker approached the awaiting ball.

Bi! (Goal!)

A back and forth of goal, miss, goal, miss, went on until the count was 4-4.  Then 5-4.  Then 5-5.

Our extra kicker, Bintu, stepped up to the line.  The crowd was silent…

Shot, bi!

The 12th grade team sent an extra person to the line.  Our goalie was in position.  They both raised their hands to indicate their readiness, and she kicked…and missed!

The goalie pulled through a big save, and the younger girls won the game 6-5 in a shoot out.  They were so excited and started celebrating with hugs, high fives and chants of victory.  See pictures of game day here.

After the game, my question was, when is the next game?  It was obvious how much the girls enjoyed playing together, hanging out at practice and, obviously, winning – all of the things I remember loving so much about playing soccer in high school.  Unfortunately, it seems that (and in my personal opinion, like so many international women’s day activities) the game was just a show.  It was like my community saying, “See, we can let girls have the same opportunities as boys…but just for this one day.”

As I see it, this is a great opportunity to start a high school team, and I’ve expressed my interest in helping out.  I’m hoping that they will take me up on the offer when I return from the States.  Keep your fingers crossed!  Hopefully, more is to come…