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“We’re not a bad country,” smiles Kosovare Asllani as she walks off, but the Swedish Footballer of the Year, fast approaching her 100th international appearance having captained her country for the first time in the recent Algarve Cup, is not talking about the country she has represented for a decade.
The daughter of Kosovan migrants who emigrated to Sweden, Asllani has carried her heritage in her first name and the tattoo of a black-headed double eagle of Albania on her ankle.
“I was born in Sweden, but at the same time I’m really proud of my heritage, that my parents are born and raised in Kosovo, I’m both Albanian and Swedish.
“I grew up with a family that have shown me how people in Kosovo listen to Albanian music. I love it.”
It is a music that has now gone mainstream in England through Kosovan-English singers Rita Ora, who performed a concert in Pristina to mark 10 years of Kosovan independence last month, and Dua Lipa who recently tweeted: “Wanting to tell our story and where we’re from is in our blood and I try and tell people everywhere I go and in every interview that I’m from Kosovo.”
Asllani is no different. “We have a lot of singers representing Kosovo. I’m proud of the country, proud of the artists and proud that I can be a part of that too.”
International football recognition from Fifa in 2016 came too late for a generation of Kosovar footballers who already made the pragmatic decision to represent the countries that welcomed their families in while their own was still fighting for independence.
Shefki Kuqi played 62 times for Finland, Adnan Januzaj eventually opted for Belgium while Switzerland has gained the talents of Valon Behrami, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka.
Representing Kosovo was never an option for Asllani, but she will always be a representative for their people. “I definitely feel like a role model. I get a lot of messages. My parents tell me young people really look up to me because I’m one of the few Albanian footballers in the women’s game [alongside Germany’s Fatmire Alushi] that reached the top level.”
In October 2015, Asllani and her Swedish international teammates Hedvig Lindahl and Lotta Schelin made an impromptu visit to a transit camp for refugees living in Sweden.
Asllani’s eyes drift off into the distance as she recalls the day.
“Sometimes you get stuck in your small circle and just thinking about football. For us, it was really important that we could go out to meet them and give them something else in their environment to do.
“We wanted to make a difference and just see them. It was important for us and they really enjoyed it too ... It was just a good thing to do, I guess.”
Early in her career, as a young striker of Balkan heritage representing Sweden, Asllani had to face inevitable comparisons with fellow Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
No more so than in 2012 when he presented Asllani to the media upon her signing for Paris Saint Germain and declared: “If you want to win, you need a Swedish striker.”
Although the softly spoken Asllani is nowhere near as bombastic as Ibrahimovic, they share a desire to speak their minds.
“We always say what we think and I think that’s important.”
In the end, Asllani was no more successful than Zlatan in bringing a coveted first Champions League title to Paris. She was in tears in Berlin as an injury-time goal from Mandy Islacker denied them extra-time in the 2015 final.
A Women’s Super League champion in 2016 with Manchester City, her equaliser briefly brought her side level in last season’s semi-final before Lyon overpowered them in the first leg.
Now having rejoined her first club Linkopings, Asllani will return to Manchester for the first leg of this season’s Champions League quarter-final today.
“I played seven years outside Sweden, so I kind of felt it was the right stage in my career to go back to Sweden and have a bigger part in the club.
“In Manchester City I played as a winger and that’s not really my position and I don’t think I really reached my potential playing as a winger. It was a good part in my career to experience English football.
“Manchester City is obviously a huge club. I enjoyed my time there and gained a lot of friends. I definitely think that they are the favourites against us.”
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