Fatmire Bajramaj is the carefree young face of women's football in Germany. A Muslim Kosovan, her eventful life story recalls the hit English film Bend it like Beckham, in which a girl footballer strikes out against ethnic prejudices and her family's reservations.
Bajramaj, known commonly as Lira, fled from Kosovo with her family and eventually moved to Mönchengladbach, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and began playing football there against her father's will.
"He wanted me to do ballet. He said football was only for men," says Bajramaj.
When she realised she had something to offer on the pitch, Bajramaj signed up for the women's team at FSC Mönchengladbach, soon moving on to another more ambitious team. Her family found out, but she managed to convince her father to watch her play. "He's been my biggest fan ever since," Bajramaj says with a grin.
At the age of 16 she started receiving inquiries from national league teams, joining FCT Duisburg in 2004 and playing her debut match for the German national side a year later. Bajramaj has since played in 35 international matches, scoring six goals – probably the most important of which were her two goals in the third place playoff at the 2008 Olympics against Japan.
Bajramaj's list of successes is impressive: European Under-19 Football Championship, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Cup and German Football Association (DFB) Cup winner, Olympic bronze, and world and European champion.
Despite her young age, Bajramaj has experienced a great deal, enough to fill the pages of her biography, My Goal in Life – From Refugee to World Champion, published in October 2009. The book tells the story of how she grew up in Gjurakovc, at the very heart of the Kosovo conflict. When the Serbian attacks on Kosovans intensified in 1992, her parents fled to Germany with five-year-old Lira and her two brothers.
The Bajramajs left their farm and had to bribe Austrian customs officers to cross the border. They eventually ended up with relatives in North-Rhine Westphalia. They could not stay there long, however, and were transferred to an asylum-seekers' home. Her father found work as a builder in Mönchengladbach and the family moved into a small flat in the city famous for its football team.
"I want the public to know how difficult it is for refugee children to integrate in Germany. Only sports helped me find friends. I hope my book will encourage young women from ethnic minorities to take the same path," says Bajramaj.
She heard more than her fair share of racist comments on the playground, but later managed to earn respect on the football pitch. "That was when they stopped making stupid comments," Bajramaj remembers.
Germany is her new home, but Bajramaj still has close links to her old country. Her parents and brothers live in Mönchengladbach, but the rest of the family is still in Kosovo. They visit their relatives once a year, pleased to be there but equally happy to return to Germany. Bajramaj does not want to sever her roots though, which include living out her Muslim faith.
"I pray before I go to sleep, before car journeys and matches. But I don't wear a headscarf, I like wearing makeup and I go to parties."
Many people still imagine women players all have short hair and stocky legs, one reason why she enjoys playing with her "girlie" image – often wearing makeup on the pitch, playing in pink football boots in last year's DFB cup final and shooting goals in high heels on a television sports show.
"First and foremost, I want to win, but I want to look good doing it," says Bajramaj.
But she has more to offer than her looks – she has a big heart too. She has been an ambassador for the children's charity World Vision and will soon be sponsoring a child. At the beginning of this year, she was made an ambassador for the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, a movement to renew Europeans' commitment to solidarity, social justice and greater inclusion.
For German Football Association President Theo Zwanziger, Bajramaj is a shining example of successful integration. He likes bringing her along to public relations appointments and visiting schools with large ethnic minority communities.
"I enjoy it," says Bajramaj. "It's an honour for me to be a role model."
* André Tucic is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.