Anita Asante: “Football is supposed to be a beacon that brings people from all sorts of walks of life and backgrounds into one shared space.”

For some professional athletes, retirement is an opportunity to take a breath, look around and figure out what the next steps look like.

That was not the case for footballer Anita Asante, though, who has barely had a chance to blink since announcing she was hanging up her boots in April, bringing a 19-year playing career to an end.

Since then she has played her final matches, before being thrown headfirst into coverage of Euro 2022 -where she was able to watch England go one better than her own side in 2009 by lifting the trophy – and a coaching role with Bristol City.

Tributes came in from across English football for Anita Asante when she announced her retirement.

Time has been scarce for reflecting on the past, then, but Asante would not have had it any other way as she has enjoyed the early days of new challenges.

“Obviously, it was amazing, from the tributes from Villa and the players and staff to going back to my old stomping ground at Arsenal as well and having all those players celebrate my career – it was such a lovely touch,” Asante recalled.

“Since I finished playing, I kind of went full force into first Soccer Aid and then the Euros, so it’s just been a bit non-stop really. To be honest, I kind of think I preferred it this way where I’ve just been able to jump into new things and get into another routine, rather than being at home and be wondering, okay, well, what now? What am I doing next?

“In the last two seasons at Villa, I had transition in my mind. A lot of former players and people I’ve known throughout the years who always give me really good advice said you should always think about those things in the background, whether you’re ready to retire or not.

“Coaching was part of that plan. I started my UEFA B Licence last summer and decided that it was something I wanted to explore. I wanted to learn more about coaching and all the skills that it entails, but also learn about myself as a person and if I could to develop the tools to be able to share knowledge from a coaching perspective after having such a long playing career.

“I feel like there’s an opportunity for me to try and support the game in another capacity, and also support the next generation of players because I’ve been lucky enough – or privileged enough – to have a professional playing career and experience a lot and learn a lot along my own journey.

“I can see areas that I know can improve, and also areas that are thriving at the moment, and we need to keep supporting them and pushing forward.

“In earlier weeks, in pre-season, it was tough, because of course nothing will ever replicate playing for me. When you’re there and the players are out in the sunshine with their boots on kicking balls around, I kind of still had the feeling of ‘oh, I want a kick around, I want to join in with the 3v3’, but then I have to bring myself back to Earth and go ‘you’re not here to do that, you’re not here to play, you’re here to work’.

“On the flip side, it’s been a really interesting transition for me because I think I am now getting to appreciate just how much goes into a coaching role. I’m seeing how much preparation, planning and thinking is involved, and also how important it is to be adaptable because every day can look different.

“We are managing players’ welfare on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes players will be in a good mood or in a bad mood, they might be injured, they might be sick or whatever, so you’re constantly tinkering with your session and your plans.

“Also the numbers you have available to you – that’s not something I had to ever really think about or deal with as a player. As a player you deal with scenarios, game management, trying to be a professional by looking after yourself on and off the pitch and recovering and all of that. As a manager or a coach, you’re having to think about every aspect of those pillars, you know, the psychological, the physical, the tactical, and bring it together.

“What I’ve really enjoyed is being part of a wider coaching staff who will share ideas and support each other. Lauren (Smith, manager) and Jen (Foster, assistant manager) are both really good at supporting me and my development as a coach with the things I haven’t been used to.”

Seeing history being made up close

Asante was already doing some punditry before retiring as a player, but the summer took things to a whole new level as she was involved in an international tournament – taking place at home in England no less.

The 71-time England cap accomplished more than most during her career – a quadruple with Arsenal in 2007, doubles in 2006 and 2008 and even an Olympic appearance for Great Britain in 2012 to name just a few – but one thing she was never able to do was lift a trophy with her country.

To see the current generation of Lionesses go all the way over the summer was a special moment for Asante as a result, and she felt privileged to be able to have the best seat in the house for it.

“Women’s football got the spotlight that it deserved this summer through a really well organised European Championship,” she reasoned.

“As a home nation tournament, it was really important that it was a showpiece event, showcasing the best talent across Europe, and for me it lived up to that. Of course there were debates about venues and things like that, but in terms of the quality on the pitch and even the coverage across the games throughout the tournament, I thought that was exceptional across TV and radio – and it’s not just because I was part of it, but it was really nice as a former player to be in that position.

“It’s not something I ever thought I would be able to do, to contribute in that fashion and also witness England make history in the women’s game.

“It was an incredible, incredible moment for our game. I thought it was a really great strategy to have lots of current coaches and former international players included in the coverage because we were able to share insights into the growth and development of the game, but also able to be critical in a fair and appropriate way for genuine sports fans to be invested in and garner that interest in the sport.

Asante, an experienced campaigner for England herself, was able to cover the Lionesses’ Euro triumph.

“To be fair, I think the level of play at the tournament kind of did that for itself. We saw that in terms of attendances and all the fanfare, and all the travelling fans who were incredible and really added to the colour of the tournament and created the atmosphere.

“I was so happy and honoured to have been able to cover the final and then co-commentate on that match. To witness an England side reaching the final, again, was obviously very special, and I think it was exactly the kind of final you wanted to see – it was two top nations with this historic legacy in football challenging for the title.

“It was a game like a swinging pendulum. England had momentum, then it went to Germany, and there were moments it was tense and you could feel that in the atmosphere. That moment when Keira Walsh plays that through ball and we get that goal, I think it was just a moment of pure elation and ‘wow’.

“People were up on their feet, and it was an emotional moment. I felt emotional, so I can only imagine what all the former players across all the generations and anyone that’s been part of the women’s game from the pioneer days to now would have collectively felt.

“It was an incredible, historic moment to witness, and really it came from that sense of knowing where the game has been, and how hard it’s been to get it to this point. To fill all the fruits of people’s energy and labour and toil and passion over the years to push the game to where it is now that we have a successful England team was fantastic. It was the one thing that we all have wanted for such a long time.

“As a player, it was one of my own personal ambitions. I wasn’t able to fulfil it, but because we played this game, no matter the obstacles, no matter the difficulties, we now have a generation of players with the support and resources to go on and win major international tournaments.

“It will leave a long lasting legacy that will hopefully have inspired a whole new generation, but it also shifted the conversation about where women are placed in sport and how we view women in sport.

“It wasn’t just mothers and their daughters, it was groups of men who are sports fans, football fans – and young boys as well – wearing the names of England players or other teams on the back of their shirts, and that’s the place we want to get to.”

With greater attention comes greater responsibility

Women’s football is often held up as a far more inclusive space than men’s football. That’s not to say it is devoid of issues, but with the spotlight shining ever more brightly on the sport it also becomes increasingly vital that it remains a welcoming space.

As a gay, black woman, Asante is at an intersection that is rarely represented in the mainstream of any platform. Perhaps that is why she sees it as an imperative area of focus for women’s football as it continues to grow.

“I think it has to be one of the priorities of the game, because what a tournament like the Euros has done is allow us to raise awareness of certain issues that we feel need addressed within the game,” Asante explained.

“I’m not seeing that kind of diversity and visibility in the national team – and that isn’t to be critical of the squad or the management, that was to say that perhaps we need to reassess our pathways. Are there a whole group of people that don’t have the same levels of access and inclusion within the game, across different demographics but also from a socio-economic perspective?

“The other part, of course, is related to general inclusion and making sure that audiences that are coming to games feel included, and that they’re going to come into an environment that is safe and fun, where people can connect.

Asante, playing for Aston Villa last year, battles Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema for the ball.

“Football is supposed to be a beacon that brings people from all sorts of walks of life and backgrounds into one shared space where they can enjoy good levels of the game and sport in general.

“I do think it has to be part of the strategic plan within football, because you cannot lose sight of that and we cannot take it for granted just because we’ve always placed women’s football as an inclusive space. Actually, there have been a number of women that will say, ‘well, actually, I don’t think my space within my club or whatever has been inclusive’.

“I think the difference now is instead of performative actions related to inclusion – and general education, diversity and things like that – there is now organisation behind it.

“We’ve got supporters groups that are part of LGBTQ+ representation, we’ve got communities that are very visible within a particular geographic location in England that clubs are trying to connect and engage with that aren’t necessarily primarily geared towards football, or haven’t had the opportunity to experience what football can bring.

“It’s now that kind of action where you’ve got to be proactive in making those things happen.

“For example, let me just take myself. I’ve played this game for over 20 years, and as much as I felt included in it as a gay, black female – because being gay was visible to me, and that made me feel safe in that environment when I was ready to come out – when I look around a lot of clubs today there still isn’t that level of representation I think we need to see within the overall game.

“When we take into consideration how global football is and how loved it is across the world, all sorts of people want to engage with it and want to have roles and jobs within football. It’s strange to think that I’ve been in changing rooms and I’ve been maybe the only black player in the room.

“That doesn’t mean I have to be a player, but even in backroom staff, there’s not many clubs that I can think of in my whole playing career where there’s been staff from other communities involved in football, even in the women’s game which people perceive to be more accessible than the men’s game which has been professionalised over decades.

“That’s why we can’t ignore this issue, because we have to – and I think we can – learn a lot of things from the men’s game to try to build something that we want to be a lasting legacy within our own game.”

Driving the right messages forward

Asante has already been active in spreading messages of inclusion and diversity as a player, and she has no intention of letting that go now that she has moved into coaching.

Given the experiences she talked about above, her presence in and around changing rooms could prove crucial to doing the same thing that the Lionesses managed over the summer – inspiring future generations.

For further widespread change to happen though, more support will be needed from all corners. Football can be a tool to bring people together, and Asante has no intention of letting that opportunity slip through her fingers.

“You need visible role models within the game that are confident and supported enough that they feel they can talk about themselves, their sexuality and the sport as well,” Asante added.

Asante accomplished plenty during her playing career – but her influence on the game is set to continue even after retirement.

“It’s all intertwined for me. Sport is not just the governing bodies, it’s not just the clubs, it’s various stakeholders from sponsors to different marketing and partners that are now invested in the game, to TV and the general media. They all have to recognise that as well.

“They have to ask if their platform is doing enough to bring visibility to different types of women, different types of female bodies, different types of players who are representative of either the LGBTQ+ community or even maybe a religious community who are in the top level of sport.

“When we start thinking broader, that’s when these images will come to the forefront more, be less of a conversation and just be part of the norm. We’re still talking about it, because we’re not seeing enough of it, and we don’t understand why.

“When companies advertise – let’s say deodorant, all types of people buy deodorant, you’re not selling to one type of person. It’s that kind of concept, and those shared stakeholders need to recognise that in order to get to that place you need diversity of thought around your table and you need people who haven’t got the same shared, lived experiences as them to elevate what they’re promoting or selling.

“They often use football or sport as a vehicle to do that, and vice versa. We can use football to create wider messages surrounding inclusion and positivity, and all the elements that we want to be part of our game.

“I still am active with Show Racism the Red Card and Amnesty. Those are the platforms I feel I can really drive forward other socially conscious issues.

“Within myself, I hope that just being in this coaching role will allow other players either from my background or otherwise to feel like this is a space that they can strive to be part of.

“They can just see someone there who is representative of my community, and also I want people to know that they can reach out and approach me and have conversations that will allow them to feel supported in whatever journey they are seeking to go on within the game.

“Any time that I have the opportunity to be around leaders within my sport, I’m absolutely going to use my voice as a tool to drive home these messages and put pressure on, because ultimately that’s the only way we get change.

“A lot of progress is being made within women’s football. There are a lot of people who are striving towards the same goal in terms of increasing the professionalisation of the game across all levels, but also, when it comes to issues surrounding race or sexuality, religion or any of those things we can’t just leave it up to people who are within those groups to be the ones that challenge how it can improve.

“We should share experiences, we should listen, but it’s going to take them plus allies to really make the difference we need.

“Often the point is a lot of these groups are excluded from the arenas where power is executed, so until you get someone at the table who is in a position where they actually have the licence to be part of that process, we won’t get the kind of change that we want to see in the timeframe that it should be happening.”

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