Friday 19 August 2016, 12:43

Asllani, standing tall for multicultural Sweden

When Mr and Mrs Asllani left their native country – with their two young children in tow – to try their luck in Sweden in 1988, the idea of having a third child was already lodged in their minds. So it was that a year later, their baby girl was born in Kristianstad. She was Swedish by birth, but her blood was Kosovan through and through, and tellingly they named her Kosovare.

What they could never have imagined at the time was that 27 years on, coincidentally at the very first Olympic Games in which Kosovo would feature as an independent country, their daughter would win a medal wearing the Sweden shirt while also proudly flying the flag for her parents' homeland.

"I'm very proud to play for Sweden and I have Kosovo in my heart too. My whole family is from Kosovo, so this medal will be for both Sweden and Kosovo. Both are in my heart," Kosovare Asllani told minutes after her side upset hosts Brazil at the Maracana and ensured that they will come away from the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 with at least silver.

Asllani was one of the last players to leave the jubilant, music-filled dressing room following the match, although she did pop out for a few minutes in the middle of the celebrations in search of better phone reception, unable to wait any longer for her video call with her loved ones back at home.

Today's final will be the "biggest game of my life", as she put it – not just because of the sporting glory on the line, but due to the impact her example could have among the wider community of young immigrants and their descendants, particularly the girls among them.

An inspirational success story"Swedish women's football has traditionally been a sport for the white middle class, but that's changing right now. Kosse Asllani is showing the new generation that you can make it for the national team even if your or your parents' origins lie outside Sweden. She is playing an important role beyond what she does on the pitch." These are the words of the Swedish journalist and writer Anja Gatu, who teamed up with Asllani and Maria Kallstrom to write two children's books based on the forward's story.

Pass the ball! Kosse Calling and What a goal, Kosse! are important books "to create new idols for young people", Gatu told, adding that they offer readers the chance to "learn that the players at the Olympics were also once just ordinary girls, with everything that entails, for example that even if you're very shy, you can become a professional footballer when you're older".

Asllani was just 18 when she made her debut for Sweden in 2008, since when her stock has steadily kept soaring throughout the country. Her billing in the media as the 'female Zlatan'* *– owing to her prolific exploits, her Balkan blood, her time at Paris Saint-Germain and her knack for not mincing her words – helps explain her profile, but a substantial part of her popularity stems from her status as a role model for the immigrant community, and particularly for the Kosovans among them. The fact that she was contacted by a publishing house for the aforementioned books is a testament to this position, as is their subsequent success.

I always fought for all the girls of foreign origin in Sweden. They lit the fire in my heart when things were difficult for me.

"I got a lot of messages from parents saying that I'm a great role model for their boys and girls, even though they hadn't seen me play and had only read the book," Asllani said, "That's really important, especially for football-playing girls from foreign families."

The Manchester City star is hopeful that her involvement in the final against Germany will send out a message that gets through to the new generation – not just on account of her personal background, but also because of the resilience Sweden have had to display. She and her team-mates had to regroup following a 5-1 thrashing by Brazil in the group stage, but bounced back to later knock out "two world-class teams" en route to the title decider: USA and the Brazilians themselves.

"Playing in an Olympic final is a big dream for me. They will see what I've achieved and when you see a role model of yours doing well, you want to do the same. Hopefully it will make them dream too," she said, a lump seemingly forming in her throat.

"Even when I went through tough moments in my career, I always fought for all the girls of foreign origin in Sweden. They lit the fire in my heart when things were difficult for me," she went on, visibly holding back the tears.

"They made me want to do much more. They'll see me fulfil one of my dreams and here's hoping that they will understand that they can do it too, if they put in the effort." Her watery eyes needed no explanation, but she felt moved to offer one anyway: "Talking about them is a sensitive subject for me."

An iron will and Kosovan pride Arguably the toughest time in her career – which has taken in spells abroad in the USA, France and now England – came when she was omitted from the squad for the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011™. Suffice it to say that doubts crept into her mind, but these only redoubled her determination.

"You always have moments in your career when you ask yourself questions like whether it's all worth it, because you're putting your heart, soul and life into it when you play football. But from the bottom of my heart, I always wanted to play football, and I always believed in myself. Sometimes it's difficult, but you keep going, training and working harder. If you do that, you come back stronger than ever."

Driven on by this iron will and by the number of people who look up to her, Asllani is a game away from capturing a longed-for medal, although she does not yet know what colour it will be. Nothing would make her happier than to emulate Majlinda Kelmendi, the judoka who won the first Olympic gold in Kosovo's history in the 52 kg category: "She made the whole country proud and I hope to do the same."