Anita Asante did not get into football for its politics and the platform it provides. Like most, Aston Villa’s centre-half just loved the game. But when it comes to mixing sport and politics, surely few can match the former England international.
Asante studied politics and English at Brunel University about 15 years ago and continues to follow developments closely. “Anything socio-political, I’ll try to do research and gain more knowledge,” the 36-year-old says. “Especially with things that I disagree with, I want to understand and arm myself with the right material.
“I’ve always been a believer that politics is all around us, it impacts us in our daily lives and if I have an opportunity to speak positively on things that impact me or people around me or society, then there’s no harm in that.”
Asante has developed into a footballing activist organically. She is outspoken on everything from racism, sexism and LGBTQ+ rights, having first talked publicly last year about her relationship with the journalist and former hockey player Beth Fisher, to the development of the women’s game.
“People might say I’m an activist but I just believe that I found my voice,” she says. “As a younger player I maybe didn’t have the confidence to speak up, but I had the views. And I didn’t feel that I had the platform or the opportunity, but now I do. I’ve been around people that have expressed their views and I’ve seen the impact it has. I want to do that for others. It’s just speaking up for others who might not have a voice in the game or outside of it. I just want to always strive for progress.”
Asante, who won 70 England caps, has come a long way from playing football in the cage on her north-west London council estate. Her pushy PE teacher, Ms Harding, set up a girls’ team to cater for the multi-disciplined but football-obsessed youngster, who went on to Arsenal’s academy.
“I was playing every day, in my estate, in my cage,” Asante says. “That’s where my learning happened. That’s where my innate skill was developed.”
Today girls come through a more structured and invested-in system and the technical level is being driven up but Asante does not feel her journey was inferior. “I got to experience playing with boys and men older than me,” she says. “To spend hours on the ball with them in a way that girls and women don’t get to do in their own professional environment. It’s a different kind of learning and vibe.
“My learning came from getting kicked and beat up against cage walls against boys and that tested me, that challenged me and that made me want to always prove myself. I wanted them to respect me, I wanted them to make me feel part of their group.”
After 10 years at Arsenal, Asante joined Chelsea before moving to the US and playing there for four clubs. She then spent five years in Sweden and rejoined Chelsea before signing for Villa for the club’s maiden WSL season in 2020.
“The US definitely developed me in terms of mentality,” she says. “Before that point, it was like: what is being a professional? What does that look like? What does that require? What were the expectations? I didn’t really know. I knew my environment, and I considered my environment a high-performance environment at the time, because we were successful; Arsenal, we were doing things that other clubs weren’t able to do. But then I got to America and I realised: ‘Oh my God, there’s a load more to this.’
“Sweden impacted me both on and off the pitch. There have been environments in the past where you could be 18 or 16, essentially an adult, but you’re still sort of communicated with like you’re a child or you’re in a structured institution. In Sweden everyone always felt equal and level. I also liked the social activist side of things there, the way the clubs always had a drive to be part of the community and brought that into the consciousness of the team. That sort of inspired my own personal social activism. I felt like yes, I am more than just a footballer, I can do more.”
Asante has had to adapt the way she plays and thinks about the game at Villa, for the first time swapping clubs used to battling for titles to one that last season was battling the drop.
“I won’t lie, it’s been a challenge,” she says. “It’s difficult, probably more from a mental and emotional standpoint, because I’ve been used to being at top clubs that compete at a different level. But I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s made me adapt my game as well.
“I’ve always considered myself a ball-playing defender … I haven’t always been able to do that within this team, last season in particular, but it’s made me realise how much more you have to think about the game as a whole, in terms of game management, taking more pragmatic decisions to just be robust and secure as a defender and not take as many risks. In free-scoring teams you might, as a defender, take those risks because you know you have world-class forwards and players that will go and do creative things and score goals.”
With a new manager, Carla Ward, and signings who have helped get the right blend of youth and experience, Villa have two wins from five games, having managed only three last season.
“One of our main ambitions is to get mid-table; sixth or seventh would be great,” says Asante. “We have to have realistic expectations of where the club is at in terms of overall experience in this division and in creating the identity that will help the team to be sustainable and keep growing long term but I think that’s a realistic target. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.”