x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

From refugee to Fifa World Cup champion

As a young Kosovan Albanian refugee in Germany she was taunted and teased by other children. Now Lira Bajramaj looks to defend her country's championship title at the Fifa Women's World Cup in June. •

Lira Bajramaj, left, fights for the ball with Heather O'Reilly of the US during a women's friendly international football match in Augsburg. Reuters
Lira Bajramaj, left, fights for the ball with Heather O'Reilly of the US during a women's friendly international football match in Augsburg. Reuters

As a young Kosovan Albanian refugee in Germany she was taunted and teased by other children. Now Lira Bajramaj has won one World Cup for her country and is gearing up to defend the title as the Fifa Women's World Cup kicks off in June. Louise Barnett reports

With her varnished nails, dark eyeliner and long, curly hair, she is a picture of femininity. Fatmire "Lira" Bajramaj's glamorous looks have thrust her into the German media spotlight and earned her the sort of attention usually reserved for pop singers and actresses.

In fact, this 23-year-old is one of the star players and the only Muslim on Germany's highly successful national women's football team. Next month she will play before a cheering crowd of some 70,000 spectators when the Fifa Women's World Cup kicks off in Berlin.

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* 10 top Muslim female athletes, past and present

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Lira's ascent to the top level of her sport is, of course, the result of talent and determination. But it is all the more extraordinary given the story of her childhood.

When she was five years old, Lira and her family fled their home in war-torn Kosovo and arrived as refugees in Germany. Her love of the beautiful game began the following year when she started playing football with her elder brother, Fatos, who let her kick about with him.

Lira's father, Ismet, a former car mechanic, strictly disapproved of girls getting involved in this male-dominated sport and absolutely forbade his daughter to play.

"My father was very much against it and said that football wasn't for me. I'm the only girl in the family and he wanted me to be the little princess who danced and played girls' games," she says.

"But I played anyway in secret. I just loved it because it was so much fun."

Lira's tenacity was such that she secretly joined a youngsters' football club and even forged her father's signature on permission forms to play in local games. After several years of sneaking around, her cover was finally blown when Ismet turned up to watch Fatos play in a match - and was amazed to spot his daughter kicking about on an adjacent pitch. Impressed by her talent, he finally relented and gave her his blessing to play.

"When I was 11 years old, my father said: 'Yes, OK, you can play football well,'" she says. That change of heart was to prove a pivotal moment for Lira's career and future. Today, she is a professional sportswoman with a string of impressive achievements.

For the past two years she's played for the Turbine Potsdam club, based near Berlin, that was recently crowned No. 1 in Germany's women's Bundesliga. She'll transfer to rival club Frankfurt after this summer's Women's World Cup.

After helping take Germany to victory in the 2007 Women's World Cup, Lira and her teammates scooped a bronze medal in the following year's Olympic Games in Beijing. Earlier this year she was one of three women shortlisted for the prestigious Fifa Women's World Player of the Year award.

"Of course I've become more mature and independent. And I've been able to get to know many foreign countries," she says of life as a professional footballer.

Her focus is now firmly on June 26 when defending champions Germany will take on Canada in the Fifa Women's World Cup opening match at Berlin's Olympic Stadium.

"My goal now is obviously to win the World Cup but the competition is very strong, especially from the USA, England and Sweden," she says.

When Lira's career as a professional footballer began at the age of 18, her combination of good looks and Muslim faith immediately brought media interest.

"In the beginning a lot of people asked about my religion. But I said, 'We're a modern family and for us this is allowed,'" she says.

So does being the first Muslim player on the German national women's team have any real significance for her?

"I'm still the only one and a lot of people are interested in that and in how my life is," she says. "I try to follow Ramadan but it's only possible for four days. I do the four most important days, the first one, then two in the middle and the last one. Because I need to drink and eat while I'm training."

Lira's life today is not one that her Kosovan Albanian parents could ever have imagined for her. She was born in the tiny village of Gjurakovc and spent the first few years of her childhood living on the modest family farm. Escalating violence and the persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo following the collapse of Yugoslavia turned the Bajramaj family's world upside down.

After Ismet was threatened with prison for running a secret school for Albanian children, he and his wife, Ganimet, decided things were so desperate they had no other option but to gamble their life savings on a dangerous escape out of Kosovo.

The family were smuggled by road through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia in a gruelling five-day journey that eventually brought them to safety in Germany. Lira, five years old at the time, still has nightmares about the frightening, barking border guard dogs.

The Bajramaj family's arrival in Germany marked the start of a tough new chapter for them. Their first year was spent living in a single, cramped room in a centre for asylum seekers until Ismet got work as a labourer and they were granted residency permits.

For Lira, growing up as an Albanian-speaking Muslim in the conservative West German town of Mönchengladbach had its challenges. She and Fatos felt like outsiders at their school and suffered some abuse.

"It was right at the beginning and I didn't really know it was racism," Lira remembers. "In primary school they called us 'bloody foreigners' - that was really [by] small children. For a few years at the beginning it worried me but later that changed."

In her autobiography - My Goal in Life: From Refugee to World Champion - Lira talks proudly of her Muslim faith and her family's joy when Kosovo declared independence in 2008. She's never had a dilemma about whether to cover her hair with a head scarf because this was not usual practice for her mother or the other Muslim women in their Kosovan village.

Lira is often photographed on the pitch with painted nails and eye make-up. So what does she think of the Fifa President Sepp Blatter's 2004 comment that women footballers should follow women volleyball players and wear skimpier clothes to boost their sport's popularity?

"I laughed about that," she says. "But we play football and not volleyball. So no, that's not going to happen."

Lira's life beyond football could revolve around her interest in beauty products.

"I'd like to work with cosmetics and at some point have my own store. With football I really want to live out the whole experience and be successful," she muses. "I definitely want to get married and have children."

 

The Lira chronology

APRIL 1, 1988 Born in Gjurakovc, Kosovo, to Kosovan Albanian parents Ismet and Ganimet.

1993 Five-year-old Lira flees the conflict in Kosovo with her parents, elder brother Fatos and younger brother Flakron.

1994 German authorities grant the Bajramaj family asylum.

2001 The Bajramaj family receive their first German passports.

2004 Lira joins the German women's football club FCR Duisburg.

2005 Debuts for the German national women's football team in a match against Scotland.

2007 Plays for the winning German team in the Fifa Women's World Cup held in China.

2008 Finishes as bronze medallist with the German national team in the Beijing Olympics.

2009 Switches clubs to play for Turbine Potsdam; publishes her autobiography, My Goal in Life: From Refugee to World Champion.

2011 Turbine Potsdam win the women's first league in Germany; Lira's transfer from to rival club FFC Frankfurt announced effective July.