Past Plays Powerful Role In Life Of German Footballer Fatmire Alushi

Fatmire Alushi and Germany won the 2007 Women's World Cup, but are determined to avenge a quarterfinal exit in 2011. Carmen Jaspersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Fatmire Alushi is scared. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder stands with some of her teammates outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in central Paris amid a chaotic crowd. A tense, nervous energy buzzes in the winter air. Police cars speed by, sirens blaring. Policemen move among the people, trying to calm them.

It's Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 7. News of a shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, 4 kilometers away, has brought this crowd into the streets. Alushi had heard vague details about the shooting an hour before, while she was riding the metro into Paris with her teammates to go shopping at the Lafayette. One of the women, Kosovare Asllani, had read a news report on her phone, but it contained few specifics. "One guy shot another man," Asllani said, "and he's dead." While they shopped, Asllani kept checking her phone. Then a German newspaper had an update: The death toll had risen. The report mentioned Islam. The teammates rushed out of the mall.

Now Alushi walks through the crowd, imagining the worst. She grew up surrounded by terror, her Muslim family forced from their home in Kosovo by the Serbs when she was 5. Those memories of the threat of violence, even death, fuel her fear.

Her phone starts ringing. Family is calling. Her husband, Enis Alushi, a former Kosovo refugee who plays in the German second division. Her brothers, Fatos and Flakron Bajramaj, who introduced her to soccer 20 years before in Monchengladbach, where the family had its first apartment in Germany. Her father, Ismet Bajramaj, the man who 21 years before had risked his life to get his family away from war and terror in Kosovo. He has a simple request for his only daughter.

"Don't go out," he says.

She can't bring herself to tell him she's in Paris at that moment, minutes from the scene of the shootings.

"We have to go," she says to Asllani.

Seven weeks after the shootings, Alushi walks into a cafe in the Parisian suburb Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She moves with strength and confidence, almost defiantly. She's the local club's -- and the German national team's -- most famous player, but she's able to walk around Paris largely unnoticed.

We settle at a table and start talking about language. She thought our interview was going to be on television. She was worried about that. "I'm not so good in English," she says. A waiter approaches, and she speaks to him in French, ordering green tea.

"Now I have to learn French. Four languages makes me crazy." Then she states -- with pride -- the complexity of her background and identity: "I come from Germany, born in Kosovo."

Being Kosovar -- and Muslim -- has brought attention to Alushi throughout her life, and it has happened again in the recent weeks in Paris, a city grappling with an act of terror committed by Islamists. She moved to Paris in August, from Frankfurt, a top team in the Bundesliga, the world's best women's league. The day after she signed her contract for 100,000-plus euros per year -- one that made her the highest-paid player on the team, one of the highest-paid in Europe -- a photo of her holding a PSG jersey ran on the first page of Le Parisien, the biggest newspaper in France. She was the first female soccer player to appear on its front page.

For the first few months in Paris, life was simple: training, games, French lessons. She developed friendships with her new teammates, such as Asllani and Caroline Seger, members of the Swedish national team. They'd go to movies, make dinner, watch Champions League games, go shopping. Enis would visit from Germany. A good life for a 26-year-old living in Paris.

Along with the good moments, though, she felt tension in Paris, particularly in the center of the city, where races and classes mix -- old France meeting new France. One day in December, she was riding a crowded metro car with her cousin. An old woman had her purse on a seat, occupying it. A Muslim woman in a headscarf came on the train and asked to sit where the purse was. The old woman ignored her. Alushi stood up and gave the Muslim woman her own seat, making the old woman sit facing the Muslim woman.

Her religion is a source of pride. She considers herself a "very modern Muslim." She is a professional female athlete, loves fashion and makeup, cannot take part in Ramadan because her training and game schedule are too demanding.

"I'm not the woman who prays five times per day," she says. "For me, it's to be a good Muslim, to be nice, to be helpful and to respect people."

She talks openly and frequently about God, asking during lunch: "Do you believe in God?" She talks of finding incredible peace when she goes to mosque. She wears a necklace that holds a lira, the coin from which she gets her nickname. "In Kosovo," she says, "every mother buys it for her daughter when they grow up." The coin brings her past, her religion, her family, literally close to her heart. In Arabic, an inscription on the coin reads: God trusts in you. God takes care of you

On this late February day, Alushi is thinking more about her club than her religion. Three days before, Paris Saint-Germain lost 4-0 to Lyon -- its archrival -- and with it, the chance to win the French league. PSG was already eliminated from the French Cup. Two of the trophies Alushi came to Paris to win are out of her grasp. Only the Champions League remains. A week from this February morning, she'll be with the German national team at the Algarve Cup, an annual tournament for the world's top women's teams. (Germany won the third-place game, missing out on the title match on goal differential.)

The World Cup is three months away. Germany will enter it ranked first in the world, having dominated its UEFA qualifying group: A 10-0 record, the most goals (62) and the best goal differential (plus-58) gave it the best tallies of any country in World Cup qualifying. Alushi plays a crucial role on the world's best team: playmaker. As a winger, she brings unique creativity -- a combination of deceptive dribbling, speed and agility, vision, and passing -- not usually seen in the disciplined German style. Next month, Alushi -- and the national team -- is determined to avenge the disappointment of 2011, when Germany hosted the World Cup but was knocked out in the quarters.

That World Cup "was very bad for us," she says. "Too much pressure. All the stadiums are full. On every TV you saw our faces. Newspapers, sometimes they'd write something bad about the team and we were like, 'Oh [expletive].' They want us to do the best, but we played very bad.

"We had to go [watch] the final. I said: 'I don't want to go.'" She went. Sitting in the stadium in Frankfurt, where she had imagined her family and friends watching her nation repeat as world champions, she remembers: "I burn inside."

Alushi discusses these losses with a mix of frustration and rational calm. Her balanced perspective makes sense when she reveals how she started playing soccer as a child, with her brothers in the streets of Monchengladbach. The sport gave Alushi joy, a way to prove herself to kids who criticized her Kosovar and Muslim background.

"It was hard, but my past I really love," she says. "If people ask me if it's a problem now, I say: 'Not at all.' I learned so much."

The past has always been a powerful force in Alushi's life.

It was the past -- history -- that forced the Serbs into Kosovo, and forced Alushi's family out of the country, the five of them slipping from their hometown early one morning in their car, driving across the border, then making a four-day trek on foot over mountains, through forests, to a refugee home in Westphalia, Germany. It was conventions of the past that made her father, a former professional soccer player in Kosovo, demand that she forgo soccer as a child in Germany. For years she lied to him about playing the game, forging his signature on her team forms, until one day he saw her play and realized how talented she was.

The combination of that past and Alushi's present made her famous in Germany. In 2007, when she was 19, she played on the German national team that won the World Cup. She played in three games and earned the corner kick that gave Germany the second goal of its 2-0 win over Brazil in the final. She was young, beautiful, uniquely talented. And she had a great story: this teenage girl, a Muslim, who made it all the way from a little farm town in Kosovo to become a world champion with Germany.

Before the 2011 World Cup in Germany, Nike made her the featured athlete in its pre-tournament promotions, including one ad with her and Mesut Ozil, a third-generation Turkish-German and Muslim, playing together. The German federation selected her to speak at the opening ceremonies, the voice of the new generation. She talked about the need for immigrants to assimilate into the culture.

Alushi's own ability to assimilate into German culture has brought her immense success. She signed her first professional contract when she was 16. She has won every title a European soccer player -- man or woman -- could want: the Bundesliga, Champions League, European Championship, a World Cup. In 2010, she finished third in voting for the FIFA World Player of the Year. In 2011, she was named German Footballer of the Year.

She had so much success that, in the spring of 2014, she considered retiring. She was ready to start a family with Enis. "I thought: I want to stop. I won a lot of cups, and I had a great time. Ten years around the world, just for soccer."

Enis told Fatmire not to retire. "Try to go in another country," he said. Offers came in from England, Germany, the United States, France. Paris Saint-Germain, with financial support from Qatari Sports Investments, was building a team that could be one of the best in Europe. The club had signed Seger and German defender Josephine Henning.

"I want to go to France," Alushi says she decided. "When I stop, I want to say I played 10 years in Germany and two years in France. I want to say to my children, 'I played two years in Paris. It's a wonderful city.'"

But on a January day, the wonder of Paris turned into horror. The Charlie Hebdo shootings were the worst terrorist attack in France in 50 years, the worst in Western Europe this decade. After the shootings, Alushi's background and religion made her a focus of family and the media. Relatives called constantly. Newspapers contacted her, asking for comment. She refused.

Now, she says, "It was a disaster. These people, they are not Muslim for me. They have their own religion. Not the peaceful Islam."

She says this while sitting in one of her favorite restaurants in Saint-Germain, an Italian place called Sopranos. The fact she is there -- out and eating dinner -- and openly expressing her feelings about the shootings illustrates how she managed the terror: She endured. Just the way she endured leaving her childhood home in the face of violence and terror, the way she endured returning to that home four years later and seeing it and all the photos and memories the family had left behind burned to the ground.

That afternoon, she endures the first and best way she learned how: playing soccer. She steps onto the Paris Saint-Germain training field in Bougival, 5 kilometers south of Saint-Germain. Drizzle falls, the temperature hovers in the 40s, but the moment her feet touch the grass, she laughs, and the sound carries across the field.

There's a compelling simplicity and humility in this setting. While the men's team has a lavish training ground in Saint-Germain, the women's team rents this field at the back of a country club on a slip of land in the western arm of the Seine. Beside their field, on the opposite side of a wood wall, is the club's swimming pool, and when the women train in warm months, children splash and yell in the water.

The training session resembles a teenage girls' practice in the United States. Many of the players are injured, and the remaining dozen women are lined up kicking balls against the wood wall at the command of their coach, Farid Benstiti, who paces around them, barking in the cold. Alushi is at the end of the line, beside Seger, appearing to want to escape Benstiti's view. The sight of these women kicking balls at a wood wall reinforces something the team's press officer said: Things are different for the women. They don't play at the famed Parc des Princes -- where the men's team plays -- but at a small stadium in the north of Paris. Except for their matches against Lyon -- that 4-0 loss drew 2,000 fans -- usually only a few hundred people attend their games.

It is clear this simplicity and occasional obscurity don't bother Alushi. The joy the game brings her is too strong. During training, she laughs and jokes. A teammate says to her: "Lira, when you are not there, it's boring. With you, it's always funny." Waiting for her turn during a drill, she hugs a plastic dummy and puts her face in the oval where the dummy's face would be. A moment later, when a teammate passes her the ball, she focuses, her face going stern, and delivers a hard low cross a teammate finishes.

When one of the women scores a bicycle kick, reaching her body and foot high into the air to meet a cross, Benstiti yells "Célèbres!" Alushi shouts something else, something that she intends as a joke but that sounds almost like a mantra, a deep desire that's reasonable given all she has endured.

"Now we can go home?"