Chelsea's Anita Asante talks exclusively on racism in football, England under Phil Neville and the state of the women's game
Chelsea's Anita Asante is a woman on a mission - a mission "to use football for positive change".
And in an exclusive interview with NewsChain, she took time out on the eve of the new Women's Super League season to speak out...
On racism: "Is it happening less, or are people not speaking up?"
On England: "I question in some games how tactically astute we are as a team."
On women's football: "It comes down to visibility, if you're not showing the games how do people get to see it?"
Regarding racism in football, the former England international believes there is a misconception that the sport has improved in tackling it in recent years. She believes the presence of racially aggravated abuse in the game is indicative of a wider societal problem, but that governing bodies are reluctant to force change.
She said: “Over time there’s been this assumption that racism, discrimination, all these things have vastly improved.
“But the reality is it really hasn’t. We have never really looked at how many people voice when these things happen to them. Is it happening less? Or are people not speaking up?"
And while Asante recognises that it is an issue which is less prevalent in the women's game, she is still more than willing to suffer playing behind closed doors in order to try to eradicate it.
“As a player I would be absolutely willing to sacrifice not having the fans or the atmosphere for however long to try and shift that culture," she said.
"The only way you can do that is if you’re serious about affecting a change in culture positively.
“At times it has to happen (playing matches behind closed doors). For example, there was a Russian club which had a whole supporters' group that had banners that were directly racially abusing a player on the opposition. In those circumstances, it feels like the club know it’s an organised group and they’re not willing or prepared to take any action."
The defender believes football has the opportunity to deal with discrimination given the platform it has, but that currently the authorities governing the sport are not acting swiftly enough.
“It’s not a football problem. Football highlights the problem because it’s so popular and it’s on TV, online, it’s everywhere.
“But it’s a society issue, a cultural issue. And football has the opportunity to find and discuss ways to deter the people who are discriminating.
“In terms of football and the governing bodies that run the game, I think that the FA, the Premier League, UEFA, FIFA, all these institutions need to start delivering harsher penalties for sports fans who are racially abusing players.
“They’re very slow to move sometimes and they’re reluctant to do those things. But if these are true supporters of the game and they get a three year, four year, life-time ban then they’re not going to do it."
Her theme changes to the game itself and this weekend where Chelsea begin their season on Sunday in a London derby against newly-promoted Spurs.
The match is set to be played in front of a sell-out crowd at Stamford Bridge as the WSL looks to take advantage of the interest in the women's game following the World Cup this summer.
It is an event which Asante recognises is a "massive occasion" and has been facilitated by the attention the Lionesses received in France.
As a result of the increased interest, this season will also see the introduction of the FA Player, an online streaming service which will show over 150 domestic women's fixtures.
Asante said: “The accessibility of the game, better quality stadiums, pitches, viewership, streaming of games on television, all of that is like night and day (from earlier in her career).
“Having the World Cup broadcast on television on the BBC where it’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re interested in football or not, is what gets people to engage.
“It comes down to visibility. If you’re not showing games then how do people get to see it? Chelsea are a global brand. We have people that support the men’s and the women’s teams. So if you don’t have that ability to stream games or whatever then you’re not going to get that sort of viewership."
Now 34-years-old, Asante is pleased to be back playing after tearing her ACL for a second time last season.
The injury put her on the sidelines for nine months and scuppered her chances of making the World Cup with England.
She had been brought back into the fold by Phil Neville ahead of the 2019 World Cup following her surprise exclusion from the 2015 tournament.
But after being ruled out due to injury, she went along as a supporter.
And although she felt the belief Neville has instilled in the team got them to the final four, tactically she still thinks they are not quite there yet.
“I question when I watch some of the games how tactically astute we are as a team and if we are sometimes naive to what the other teams are capable of at that level," she said.
“How in depth is his (Neville’s) knowledge of the women’s game in terms of what he needs to know to prepare the team for those challenges?
“I admire the fact that he has shown a lot of belief in the squad and that he goes with some would say arrogance. I think England have needed that to reach the next level.
“The team have gone over those mental hurdles which is great, so the next part is being better tactically against those nations - that’s where the real test comes."
Asante realises she is in the final part of her career as a player.
She was working on a PHD in the governorship of women's football while playing out in the US and has also worked with Brunel University.
And while she hopes to complete it in the future, she has a number of ventures she is looking to get involved in over the next few years.
She said: “(The dream job) is to use football for positive change. I’ve done some work with refugee campaigns and things like that. With the World Cup there was a lot of different organisations there with homelessness and young people.
"The way football can impact them in such a small way really made me feel like this would be a dream to give people even a small percentage of what I feel and enjoy when I play football every day."
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