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Chelsea star says accessibility is the key to growth in women’s football

Anita Asante returned to Chelsea in January 2018 almost a decade after her previous spell with the club.

The defensive midfielder, who is also capable of playing in central defence, began her career with Arsenal while studying politics and English at university.

Shortly after joining Chelsea in 2008, she was given the opportunity to move to the United States and play for Sky Blue FC who she helped win the inaugural WPS Championship.

Asante went on to play for Washington Freedom, before returning to New Jersey with Sky Blue.

Spells in Scandinavia with Gothenburg and Rosengard followed, before she headed back to the UK with Chelsea last year.

Read on as chats to Asante about her time at Chelsea, her thoughts on the World Cup and lots more.

You’ve made 75 international appearances – what would you say is your most memorable experience for England?

My most memorable experience for England was at the 2011 World Cup playing against Japan. We knew they were going to be really tough team to meet, because they were so technical and you always thought there was like three players around you all the time.

I think it was one of our best team performances and we managed to win 2-0. And yeah, it’s just an amazing feeling to have beat one of the world’s best teams on such a big stage.

It’s your second spell at Chelsea and you’ve played in the US and Europe for nine years. What’s changed in the women’s game in the UK and in particular at Chelsea – do you think the standard has evolved?

I think in general the professionalism of the game has changed and grown. We have more teams than ever that are full-time professional, players that are being able to commit to full-time training every day and develop their skills.

Just the level of competition in general within the different leagues in the UK and in Germany, France and Sweden, has improved vastly, which is making for a great UEFA and European competition.

I think the scale of it with the growth and accessibility of the game has improved proved massively with more games on TV and increased coverage and general advertiser and commercialisation of the women’s game, it is unbelievable.

How did you get into football and who were your inspirations?

I’m a Liverpool fan, so I watched back in the day when Ian Rush, Jason McAteer and Steve McManaman, all of those players were playing. I just loved that Liverpool side and their style of play – obviously they won a lot too, which helped!

I also remember Mia Hamm being the big star of the US national team and she came out with the first female boot, the M9, and it was like all the rage and we all wanted a pair and I was like: “Wow there’s women out there who are playing and they are stars too”.

But, of course, I was an avid watcher of tennis as well at the time, so when the Williams sisters were on the rise I was a keen follower as it was great to see athletes who, you know, looked like me, who were doing really well and competing and winning, it was really inspiring to me.”

What do you think of England’s chances in the World Cup and are there any players that you think we should be looking out for?

Yeah, I think this is a really good England squad – there’s a lot of players actually that are unfortunate not to be in the squad that have also had very good seasons and that goes to show the wealth of talent that we have in this country at the moment.

Off the back of the European Championship where the team got bronze they’ll be feeling more confident and they’ve got a bit more experience with more capped players, with players playing week in week out in a very competitive league it’s going to help them.

I think that the players to watch, Nikita Parris obviously, has had an exceptional year, top goalscorer for her club. They’ll be sad to miss players like Jordan Knobbs, but with quality like Lucy Bronze who has recently won the Champions League with Lyon, there will be a whole host of players that will be keen to be seen and perform.

I think England have a great chance as long as they take each game as it comes and focus on getting out of the group, then from then on anything can happen, but I’m confident that this side can hopefully bring back a medal.

Talking about players, who is the best player you’ve played with and the best player you’ve played against?

Wow! That’s actually a very tough question as I’ve actually played with so many good players! Kelly Smith was a unbelievable player at Arsenal – I was fortunate enough in the early days of my career to play with her and learn a lot from her both at club and national team level.

She has been the driving profile of our sport for many many years before now, so to have played with her is one of the greatest honours of my career.

To have played with Martha from Brazil as well was great. She has been considered one of the world’s best players on multiple occasions – a great athlete and player who is super talented and so passionate about the game.

But as I said there are so many I could honestly shout out some many players and they know who they are! As well as the talent on the field, the leadership qualities and the ability to be positive influences in a team environment, such positive people.

It’s been a great experience to have played with so many great players throughout my career.

On the personal side, you’re a UK Ambassador for Amnesty International can you tell us more about how you became involved with the organisation and some of the work that you do?

I got involved back in 2008, as I’ve always been a keen advocate of human rights, justice and equality.

In recent times I’ve been involved in a scheme called Refugees Welcome, which is a big project that Amnesty International runs across the country with different clubs to welcome refugees through football into their communities and give them positive experiences and new opportunities to see their local teams to interact with local people.

It’s been a great experience to work with so many advocates for positive change and community led initiatives that are building ties within communities and making people feel settled in the UK.

You’ve recently received an award from the PFA and Chelsea for your work in the community around equality and diversity. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve done to receive the award and also how the women’s game can be used to increase diversity and equality in the game and society in general?

Yeah, I’m really honoured to have won this the award, because I’m quite passionate about this area. To have met young people and just to have basically shared my experiences with them and trying to give them positive encouragement about all the things that they’re able to do.

If they just have some self-confidence and believe that everything is possible, to show them and be a positive figure, look at myself, there are many hopefully out there like me who are also doing the same thing, it is important.

I think the most important thing is just visibility for young girls and girls from diverse backgrounds to see that they have a welcome space within football, but also football can create so many other platforms for what people want to do.

You don’t necessary have to be a player, you could be a referee or coach, you can work with players as a physio, all sort of things, PR, marketing.

There are so many opportunities now as the women’s game is growing at such an exponential level now that opportunities are just going to keep increasing.

So that’s the main point and, in wider society, it’s just about accessibility, girls having the opportunity to participate, even just fun on the grassroots level in football, and then you get to meet so many people in football and your wider scope of society grows just by interactions and that’s really what it’s all about, positive interactions and experiences.

We’ve recently seen some major brands come into women’s football and are so used to getting the media’s opinion on brands coming into the game, but as you know, at, we are all about getting players perspectives. So what’s the players’ opinion on these brands coming into women’s football and where do you see you see opportunities for brands?

I think it’s great to see brands starting to engage more with women’s football. Obviously it’s time that they did, but I think the most important thing that brands need to recognise is that it’s not about feeding a generic idea of what a woman is.

In today’s society women are multi-dimensional, even as athletes, we are multi-dimensional people with lots of different interests, so when we work with brands, whether it be in the commercial element, advertising or whatever, they represent the people that they are directly interacting in with, what makes them feel comfortable.

For example, what they put them in, what clothing they are in, what they are asking them to say, how that say it, all these things matter for the individual, but also for the brand that they are representing.

Brands cater for a wide variety of people in society so it’s important to have lots of different types of women and girls represented through these brands that they are targeting.

I think it’s super important that brands recognise the actual needs of women and what they want, especially if they don’t have women’s voices in certain business units.

We need more women entering the rooms, where those discussions are taking place, where they are targeting certain audiences for their products, so if we can get more brands working with sports entities like our football teams, having discussions with us as athletes, what we like to see, what we’d like to wear or, what we like to use, I think they could benefit hugely from that conversation and reach a wider group of women.

You’ve touched on the need for brands to have a diverse opinion and product set, can you expand on this?

Yeah, I think one of the interesting things is sometimes, and I think it’s starting to happen more and more now, is that brands recognise that they also have to cater for other diverse groups among women, that not one hair product, is going to work for all for example or one type of cream is going to work for all.

They need to engage with lots of different diverse groups to understand this and make their products usable and accessible as well as something that people want to buy across various backgrounds.

Looking at your family background coming from Ghana, do you follow the Ghanaian women’s and men’s national teams and also, as we’ve seen the growth of women’s football globally, how to you see this growth impacting women’s football in Ghana and Africa as a whole?

Yeah, I do follow the teams a little bit on social media. I think right now, it’s just great to see that there’s a whole movement and a positive moment across Africa in general, but also within Ghana, to support girls and women to change the perceptions of what can be achieved in the sport as a female.

You’re seeing so many more players at a national level and a grassroots level getting the representation that they deserve – I think that’s an important step.

Also, as we live in a global connected world there is some much more access to information, women and girls can see profiles of players and see what’s out there to aspire for.

That’s important that people can see that there are pathways that they can take to achieve their ambitions and also that there are people just like them from their background, who have maybe come from the same challenges in different places in the world, but are still there and still working to be visible, still working to build their dream and that they can also do that.

Keeping on the topic of Africa in particular West Africa, we understand that there is a strong football rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana but we also know that there is a certain more intense culinary rivalry – who has the best Jollof rice?

Ha ha ha!!! Why did you do that to me ha ha ha! I think we’d have to do a pot of Jollof and do a test!

OK maybe a Jollof rice cook off?

Yes, that’s the only way.

Who should we do, maybe you and Eni Aluko?

Yeah, me and Eni.

OK great Anita Asante (Ghana) v Eni Aluko (Nigeria) Jellof rice cook off brought together by!

Sounds good!

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