Anita Asante’s decision to retire from football means she will leave behind a 19-year career doing what she loves – but the messages from childhood friends boasting they once played alongside her will probably continue.
There are not many people who can say they have represented their country 71 times, played in five major tournaments, gone to an Olympic Games, won multiple trophies in England and Sweden and played in the United States.
So it’s no surprise Aston Villa’s former England international gets messages off friends she used to play with on London street courts asking her to prove to their own kids that she knows them.
Asante, 36, hopes she has “represented” that community throughout her career but she already has plans to give back to London – at Arsenal, where her journey started.
“I want to get into coaching and management. I want to support the next generation of players and share my experiences with them,” Asante told BBC Sport.
“My long-term ambition is to one day manage my childhood club – that would be amazing to go back to where it all began. I want to live again in that world that gave me so much.”
‘They shaped me through their own character’
During her time at Arsenal, Asante was part of the 2007 squad that won an unprecedented quadruple, including the European Cup – the only time an English side has won the women’s competition.
She played alongside “legends” of the game including the likes of Rachel Yankey, Faye White, Jayne Ludlow, Emma Byrne and Alex Scott.
“I enjoyed playing so much. I didn’t have to change who I was from that kid in the ball courts on the estate,” said Asante. “I had the freedom to express myself and learn who I was as a player.
“Players were training twice a week and had other jobs. Mary Phillip had kids. It was part of that engrained ethic to work hard and want to be there. It was our passion. We all shared that and it created a winning mentality and spirit, and ultimately that special bond.”
Although she is satisfied with her football career, a “small part” of her would have relished the opportunities given to women footballers now.
“I experienced a generation of incredibly tough, strong, charismatic personalities that have led the game to where it is,” she said. “It’s been nice to live from both ends of the growth of the game.”
‘I needed to live that personal journey’
Those early years at Arsenal prepared Asante for life as a professional footballer but moving to play in the United States, and later Sweden, changed her as a person.
“My time in America really showed me that women could be fearless,” said Asante.
“I learned to believe in your talent. In English culture generally we’re probably a little bit more reserved about showing off or saying ‘I’m good enough’.
“It’s positive to see women be like that. Young girls and women need to see it and feel empowered. Especially in sport, you need that bit of arrogance to be competitive.”
Asante’s feeling of empowerment grew when she moved to Sweden – a country she found was “stereotypically the opposite” to American culture.
“They are more reserved and don’t really deal with confrontation. They want to create an open, inclusive, positive space and environment. I learnt a culture that took hierarchy out of it. You don’t have to have labels on people,” she said.
Asante joined in with community projects at Rosengard and became passionate about taking part in marches concerning things she believed in outside of football.
“It led me to be more of a vocal ally and an activist. I met people from lots of different cultures and it felt like everyone was pulling together to try to create as good an environment as we could,” she said.
“I absolutely would say that my experiences in football and the people I’ve met along the way have empowered me to be more vocal with my opinions.
“I’m thankful for that. I needed to live that personal journey – finding myself being confident enough to come out with my sexuality. It’s given me strength every step of the way, even in the difficult points.”
Asante was one of several England players who questioned the culture of the squad under former manager Mark Sampson, and she has been actively vocal on racial inequality and LGBTQ rights.
‘I always played and lived the game’
Asante’s decision to retire was not easy but it has been in the pipeline for a while, despite current team-mates doing their best to persuade her otherwise.
“When you play at the highest level there comes a point where it’s going to end. You have to be ready for that,” she said.
“Football is a big commitment. The time you lose with your family and friends… Mentally and physically it takes its toll to have that consistency. You wake up with niggles and your bones are creaking a bit more.
“I wanted to stop when I felt like I was still in decent physical shape for the things I want to do in the future. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to decide and be in control of what I do.”
So how would Asante want people to reflect on her career?
“I always wanted people to enjoy watching me play – to feel that I have represented my family, my culture and those players who helped me on my journey.
“Those are the kids I played with in the cages growing up, the boys who didn’t take it easy on me. They helped me to be where I am. I hope when they get in touch they feel I’m representing their ends.
“[I want them] to feel that I always carried myself with a sense of pride and humility, that I always played and lived the game and reflected my values.”
Asante returns to childhood club Arsenal in the WSL on Sunday as an opponent with Villa but one day, she hopes, she might be there again in a different role.
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