Anita Asante learned early on in her career that having control over her future was very important. After coming through the ranks at Arsenal, then joining Chelsea, the former England international moved in 2009 to the US to join Sky Blue FC for the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer championship season, which they went on to win. The following year Asante was traded to Saint Louis Athletica then, when the team folded, Chicago Red Stars where she was traded to Washington Freedom – all in the space of three months.
“I’d never not been in control of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to play,” Asante says. “It was such an overwhelming experience to not have control. It’s tough enough trying to deal with one transition but it happened multiple times. You’re not only leaving the bonds that you build in one club, with your friends, your teammates, but you just up and leave and then you’re in another city, another club environment, new coaches, a new way to play. So there’s also that element of an overload of information, an overload of trying to adjust your life again, each time. I was in my early 20s and at that point it was my first time living away from home.”
Asante’s decision, then, to step back from playing should not be a surprise, despite the impressive form she has shown with Aston Villa this season. Bowing out on her own terms matters to the 36-year-old.
“I had decided quite early on when I took this contract at Villa that I was prepared to play two more years. I’ve very much enjoyed the whole experience, even the difficult parts of it, but I always knew at some point it’s all going to come to an end and I kind of want to be in control of that. I get to decide. Not every athlete gets that choice.
“I feel that I could probably compete another year, totally. But it’s nice to finish feeling like I’m playing well and enjoying the experience. Also, you can deal with the creaks and the niggles to a point but ultimately you don’t want it getting too bad either. So, it’s also about managing that and preserving that part of myself and my body for what’s to come in the future.”
Reflecting on a near 20-year career could have us talking for hours, sitting in the sun outside Asante’s Midlands flat she has already started the process of leaving. Her career is littered with highlights she could never have dreamed of achieving as she battled in the cage of her north-west London council estate.
“There’s no way that I would have ever envisioned the life that I’ve been able to live playing football, because I never knew it was possible,” Asante says. “At that time it wasn’t a professional game, it wasn’t anywhere near as visible or accessible. It was a hollow dream. I thought I’d have another life and that football would be my hobby. That I’d be calling up my friends to say: ‘Let’s go and play in the park on a Sunday,’ for fun.”
Asante describes her journey to a professional playing career as “the right ingredients coming together at the right time” and highlights the role of her PE teacher. Ms Harding established a school team for the talented youngster to play in and pushed her to go to trials with Arsenal’s academy, where she was spotted by Rachel Yankey and Clare Wheatley. Ms Harding died before Asante’s career took off.
“I never got a chance to go back and say: ‘I’ve never forgotten what you did for me.’ It makes me feel a bit emotional. Ah man, she made my team, she saw things in me that I didn’t even see. I wouldn’t say I was an overly confident person but she pushed me. She was like: ‘You need to be showing people how good you are.’ In games she would watch me play and say: ‘You’re holding back, I can see you’re holding back. Just go for it, just kill it.’ I’ve always kept those memories and those messages that she gave to me as a young player.
“Teachers like that are just people. They’re just a part of your community and half the time they never get to know just what influence, what special connection they’ve had or impression they’ve made on you.”
Kicking off the 2012 Olympics with Kelly Smith was one highlight of an expansive career, as was the championship win in the US with an underdog Sky Blue side. And, for Asante, winning the quadruple with Arsenal in 2007 “is always up there”.
“It was a really special group of players and there was a wide demographic in terms of age,” she says. “I learned a lot from those senior players. Hopefully I’ve taken parts from all of them, in terms of leadership and their professionalism, into my own individual game, and hopefully that’s what I have imparted in my club environments.”
That all-conquering squad contained players who have gone on to influence the game, on and off the pitch, among them Faye White, Yankey, Kelly Smith, Alex Scott, Emma Byrne, Lianne Sanderson, Katie Chapman, Karen Carney and Mary Phillip.
In 1998, when Arsenal’s men side won the Premier League and FA Cup double and were celebrated with an open-top bus parade through the streets of Islington, behind them was the women’s team on top of a second bus with their two trophies, having completed the cup double that year. Asante was there. I point out that I was there too, aged 11, perched on top of a flat-bed lorry, watching and absorbing.
“I just got goosebumps as you were saying that because honestly it was one of the best experiences in my football career,” Asante says. “The club was very forward thinking for that time.
“In terms of the visibility of it all, to include us as a part of the parade, to be in the programmes in those early days as well, to go to Highbury and parade the trophies and things like that, all of those little details mattered for where the game has been able to evolve to. And hopefully these things live in the hearts and minds of all the supporters that were there during that time and they have a positive response to the women’s game and are good allies, supporting and pushing it forward, because of it.”
It is that desire to influence that is driving the next chapter. Asante hopes to continue the punditry and media work she has been doing while playing, but she is doing her Uefa B licence course with the Wales FA and dreams of going full circle and one day managing Arsenal.
“Even when I’m watching the game I’m analysing and thinking about things, and all this is just wasted energy in my mind unless I do something with it. I need to get it out there, get these thoughts out of me and share in a good way to support others. The best way is on the grass in an ever-evolving game where the possibilities, in the women’s game especially, are endless.”