An attacking midfield talent in Sweden’s top tier, Elena Sadiku lifted two Damallsvenskan titles in her early career before an overwhelming succession of surgeries and a very real threat to the everyday basics she had once taken for granted. Six months on from her retirement, the hurt still lingers for the 24-year-old, but hot on the heels of heartbreak came her key to an ancient city of new opportunity.
Most often deployed in midfield, Elena Sadiku seemed to fit the ‘box-to-box’ mould well, with an attacking instinct that had been honed in her mid-teen years as a striker. Eight years a player in the Damallsvenskan, Swedish women’s football’s highest division, you now find her in the Chinese Women’s Super League, working as the assistant and fitness coach at Beijing BG Phoenix FC.
At 24, the transition to full-time coaching has happened far sooner than she envisaged, and in circumstances she could never have wished for, as she was forced to retire from playing (but much more on that later). Helping to guide a team with a former UEFA Women’s Champions League head coach at the helm in compatriot Kim Björkegren, she is enjoying a bond with the team’s standout name, former Spain captain and beacon of first-class creativity, Vero Boquete.
The one-time Sweden Under-19, however, wants to impact upon everyone she works with.
“I want to be that coach that players will remember as one of the best coaches they ever had,” Elena explained. “Not only as a person trying to understand the players, but also because I had a good influence on them and helped them develop as a person.
“I want to be a coach that has an excellent eye for tactics, and of course, to spread that energy of mine – hard-working and gives everything to win football games.”
Such appetite to succeed went with the kind of natural ability seen as she crashed a 30-yard effort in off the crossbar for Sweden’s Under-19s against Ukraine. As well as her youth national team endeavours, the Malmö-raised competitor played for four Damallsvenskan clubs, beginning with LdB FC Malmö (before they became FC Rosengård).
One of the unwritten rules of her playing career was that games and goals needed a groove to match.
“I have one song I remember from every team I played in. Mohombi ‘Bumpy Ride,’ when I won the Swedish league with Malmö in 2010.
“Avicii ‘Levels,’ when I first got called to the youth national team. Jennifer Lopez (featuring Pitbull) ‘On the Floor’ after every game we won with Kristianstads DFF.
“’Sissy That Walk’ (RuPaul) when I scored a hat-trick on my comeback in Eskilstuna, and ‘Just idag är jag stark’ (Kenta Gustafsson) with Hammarby.”
The latter of those songs is an anthem of Hammarby IF, a particularly strongly-supported side in Swedish men’s football and the club where Elena played what transpired to be her final season last year. The song title translates to ‘Just today I am strong.’
Fortitude is an overriding theme for Elena, which can be credited in no small part to her family. In career terms, as an impressionable young player at her first club, her teammates included a couple of Sweden’s most accomplished footballers of all-time.
Two strong-willed characters who equally value the lighter side to team spirit, they set the ball rolling as the first locker-room DJs in Elena’s career, and she would soon seize the rhythmic responsibility herself.
“Well in Malmö it was (Therese) Sjögran and (Caroline) Seger. In Kristianstad, I took care of the music.
“In Eskilstuna, it was me or Olivia (Schough), and in Hammarby it was different, because we all had the same list. But I like to be the DJ because people often like my music!
“Right now I love to listen to Khalid; he’s just a fantastic singer and his songs are amazing. I’m also listening to Dua Lipa; she’s just fantastic.
“She is Albanian – makes me proud.”
Like Sweden’s former Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City forward Kosovare Asllani, as just one example, Elena has Kosovan-Albanian heritage. There is much more to learn about her – like the fact she was born in the German city of Bocholt – but music is a pretty effective starting point nonetheless.
Whether it is adding further fuel to the lively and outgoing side of her character, or offering solace in the more soul-searching moments, music holds a timeless relatability for her.
“I can honestly say that music has had a big part in my life. It makes me calm, it makes me think, it makes me go up-tempo, it makes me focus more.
“Music can bring the different feelings I want to have. It has helped in good times because music makes me happy, but it has also helped me through bad times.
“Especially during bad times I can actually listen to ‘sad-lyric’ songs so I can relate my feelings and then move on. It makes me feel better.”
On that very point, Elena has had to become far more deeply acquainted with those heartbreakingly draining times than she ever would have hoped. She recounts the events leading to her reluctant retirement at the start of this year.
“This is a long story, because it is a story of four years with surgeries and rehab. I don’t think people can understand that feeling when you can’t do what you love to do and you are by yourself.
“The only one who can help you is yourself; it is all about your mindset and how much you want it. I have gone through 12 surgeries during these four years.
“After my second ACL injury, my doctor Stefan and physio Annika Näsmark said to me that I should stop playing because of my big injuries in my left knee. But I didn’t want to.
“I still believed in me and my knee, and it worked, until I got injured again. But after my last injury, one year ago now, when it happened I knew it was over.”
Elena had twice had her contract extended by Eskilstuna United while she was rehabilitating from ACL injuries. In almost three years at the Tunavallen club she had been a popular figure, immersing herself in the culture of a team that made club history in reaching the Champions League, and unquestionably striking a chord with supporters.
Having reminded people of what she was capable of with a very impressive hat-trick against AIK in July 2015 (again, more on that later), the hope was that she would have chance to produce that more regularly when she moved to Hammarby for 2017. It was in the green and white, though, where it all came to an end.
“The words ‘you can’t play any more’ got in my head the second I got injured during the game.”
Playing against rivals Djurgården last June, Elena suffered a completely torn meniscus and ACL damage to the same left knee as previously, as she went to close down an opponent on half-way, leading to a fifth operation in three years. The day after surgery, she told on Instagram of the shock she was still feeling and the panic attack she had after waking up from the operation as she wondered if her career was over.
Giving up does not come naturally to her, however.
“The words ‘you can’t play any more’ got in my head the second I got injured during the game. What I did was continue to play 20 more minutes after I got injured because I really wanted to not stop playing.
“My love for football gave me power to continue, but after 20 minutes, I asked to change because I didn’t want to be selfish to the team. I couldn’t give my 100 percent.
“I miss playing soccer every day but what I miss more is having a healthy knee. I hate that my knee is limiting my everyday life, and I really hate that my knee took away the thing I loved most – playing soccer.”
Last June, Alexandra Lindberg celebrated a Hammarby goal by holding up Elena’s number 11 shirt. During her time at the club she had managed to have just the same lasting impact on people as ever.
In a heartfelt and heartbroken post in mid-January this year, again on Instagram, Elena confirmed her playing career had come to an end. She spoke of anger, ‘a war inside my head since last summer,’ and the helplessness of having the decision made for her at such a young age. She also thanked people profusely – from her family to physios, teammates and even opponents.
To feel something snatched away from you when almost your whole life has been geared towards it, well, there is no perfect science or method to coping with it. For a very specific reason, there was a period of immense relief in there for Elena, though the deeper hurt was not kept at bay for long.
“I think it was easier when I ‘survived’ the infection I got in my knee after the keyhole surgery; I actually thought I was going to lose my leg. I stayed in the hospital for three weeks fighting against this infection and nobody can understand how painful that period was.
“It made it easier for me to accept the process that I can’t play football again because at least I still had my leg, but when that period was over, I felt sad. There were a lot of nights when I cried myself to sleep, felt that everything was so unfair – ‘Why me?’”
In that retirement post, much like players always have that next game to look ahead to, Elena ended with the message that it was time to achieve new dreams. As it happened, it was not even a month later when she had news of that one ready to share.
With experience working with Hammarby’s youngsters already to her name, Elena made her first big step into coaching as she was announced as Beijing BG Phoenix FC’s assistant/fitness coach. It saw her united with head coach Kim Björkegren, who led Linköping to the Damallsvenskan title in 2017.
Football is undoubtedly her love, and a wise philosopher (or was it Beats International reworking The S.O.S Band?) once said that ‘love is a game of chances.’ Regardless of how you interpret that, it has proved to be true for Elena.
In probability terms, the odds have most definitely not always been in her favour, but this year she rolled again, and has duly taken that next ‘chance.’
“About China, I had no idea. It came like a big shock, and when I heard about it, I just thought for myself that I need to take this opportunity.”
The move to China and to a Women’s Super League increasingly sprinkled with notable international names is exciting in a multitude of ways, and it keeps Elena under the wing of a game she felt everything for from so young.
“My dad has been playing football for a long time and I remember how I started to play. My dad was going out to play with my big brother and I wanted to go with them as well.
“So I started to enjoy playing soccer and started to feel very passionate about it. My dad saw that I was talented, so he contacted Malmö FF and then my love for soccer just got bigger.”
She can also point to a little helping hand from her dad when it came to getting properly started with music.
“The first album I bought, or asked my dad to buy, was an Elvis Presley album. I loved the song ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,’ and ‘Hound Dog.’
“I think I was 11 at this time, but when I was growing up I loved to listen to Akon, Spice Girls, Jason Derulo and Rihanna.”
As mentioned, Elena was born in Germany, moving to Sweden when she was eight years old. Having emerged at LdB FC Malmö, she moved to Kristianstads DFF while still a teenager, and she enjoyed both fun and form.
“Well I have a lot of good memories from the four teams I played for. It’s so hard to say about the most fun moments because I had the time of my life in these eight years in Damallsvenskan.
“I have so many friends from the teams I played for that have given me the best memories I could get. I played my best football my last year in Kristianstad, the season before I got my first ACL injury, and when I came back from the first ACL injury.”
In Elena’s two seasons at KDFF, the side finished 5th (2012) and 9th (2013), with teammates along the way including internationals like Denmark forward Johanna Rasmussen, Iceland striker Margrét Lára Viðarsdóttir, and albeit more briefly, Canada’s Sophie Schmidt and the aforementioned Sweden forward Kosovare Asllani.
“In Kristianstad, it was all about the feeling that you were doing something together, as a family.”
There was no shortage of times to let go of the seriousness for the team, and Elena was quickly integrated, in customary testing fashion!
“Well in Kristianstad I did sing a song. I don’t remember which one, but we had to stand up on the chairs in a restaurant and sing.
“So probably I don’t remember which song I sang because it didn’t go so well!”
It was at KDFF that, according to one of her former teammates, Elena was learning to beatbox, and so gave her teammates a rendition. ‘When she performed it for us it was just some really strange sounds and we didn’t really know what was going on. Almost had to ask her if she was okay!’
At Eskilstuna, where she had signed in 2014, she especially enjoyed her attacking midfield role in Viktor Eriksson’s 3-5-2, and it was the club where a standout feat of her all-too-short playing story happened. Linking up with the likes of Cameroon star Gaëlle Enganamouit, a game with AIK in July 2015 saw her sparkle shine through to outstanding effect, as Elena arrowed home a header, a super-clean strike from the edge of the box, and a poacher’s sliding finish to cap off her terrific treble.
The compression sleeve worn on her left leg, although just there to aid her on the day, was perhaps a significant symbol in its own right of just how encased her talent has been over the years due to injuries. Like a caged bird, held back from flying free as they were intended.
Those sacred carefree moments with teammates were also there once again at Eskilstuna, with a couple of Swedes and an Icelander rising to the fore when it came to varied musical expression.
“Well the singing needs to go to Olivia (Schough), the rapping to Glódís (Viggósdóttir) and the dancing to Annica (Svensson). All of the three impressed me when I played in Eskilstuna.”
In her solitary year at the club, Elena’s Hammarby were a newly-promoted team who consolidated successfully, and like each of the clubs she pulled the shirt on for, she had at least one goal to take away. It marked the last of her eight Damallsvenskan seasons, but in a career that was far more condensed than seems at all fair, the memories were no less special.
“I have felt a lot of happiness from all the clubs I have played for, like I said before. It was different happiness I felt as well.
“In Malmö for example, I was so happy playing with my role models like Nilla Fischer, Therese Sjögran and Caroline Seger, and to win the league twice with them. In Kristianstad, it was all about the feeling that you were doing something together, as a family.
“In Eskilstuna, it was my toughest time but I felt happy because I had such great support from the team and supporters, and I got really close friends. In Hammarby, it was the happiness that we as a group did something really big, because everybody doubted us.
“It was a great feeling, and it was special in Hammarby because it was the club where I finished my career.”
As a team, it all comes down to what you invest in together, what you work for in the gym and the training pitch through each week, and it is everything you enjoy and achieve along the way. From the laughs together, to fighting to hold on to a win before finally hearing that whistle to confirm it, unity can be built in all sorts of ways.
Music can be as subtly powerful in uniting a squad as any physical ‘team bonding’ exercise, and it would probably be a more popular outlet than hill runs. Elena recalls her experience of it as she thinks of which teammates from her career she would record a song cover with.
“I would choose Olivia (Schough) and Glódís (Viggósdóttir) because we were doing that when we three lived together in Eskilstuna. Well they sang together and I just loved to listen to them, because they can sing, not me – I only destroy it when I sing!
“I loved to hear them/’us’ sing Adele, Beyonce or Celine Dion songs.”
This current time in China for Elena offers not just a big stride into coaching, but an invaluable opportunity for personal development on an unfamiliar continent and in a new culture. Through social media especially, you can get the updates on how someone is doing when they move away, where they have enjoyed spending time and suchlike, but you are unlikely to ever get a true sense of that ‘pit of the stomach’ feeling on the way to an airport, or the overwhelming emotion that can wash over you.
There was that for Elena when she headed to Asia, but thankfully, it came with positivity and a clear sense of why she was there to pull her along.
“Well I remembered how I felt leaving the airport from Sweden. I felt a lot of feelings; I felt excited, proud, but also sad and nervous.
“I didn’t really know what was waiting for me. I prepared myself that it would be different and it’s going to be tough.
“But then I landed in Kunming – first time in China – and I felt so excited and really looked forward to this challenge. I have enjoyed working with Kim and the team; I learn something new every day, not only as a coach but also as a person.
“It is not easy to leave everything at home in Sweden and work on the other side of the world. The most difficult part is being alone here without the people I love at home in Sweden.”
With its domestic core and major international talent like Brazil forward Cristiane, Nigeria’s ex-Arsenal and Liverpool striker Asisat Oshoala, Malawian scoring sensation Tabitha Chawinga and Costa Rica legend Shirley Cruz, intrigue is building in the handsomely-backed Chinese Women’s Super League. In week six of the season, Beijing recently won 4-0 against Hebei for their first win, with former Paris Saint-Germain and Portland Thorns star Vero Boquete amongst the scorers.
Finishing sixth last season, Beijing ran champions Dalian Quanjian close last month, narrowly losing 2-1, while a 5-1 win over Wuhan in the first leg of the FA Cup quarter-final last time out was an enjoyable boost. But what about their assistant/fitness coach – how is she doing physically?
“Sometimes (my knee) is okay and sometimes it is painful. The thing is that the ‘okay’ feeling is not like a normal knee; it’s when I just feel a little pain and a little swollen.
“I’m used to the pain so that’s normal to me. When I coach it doesn’t really bother me because I’m so into my work.
“It is usually most painful before I sleep and when I wake up.”
Elena is set to continue her coaching education when she returns to Sweden later this year as she works towards the UEFA A licence. One thing guaranteed is that it is far more than just game understanding that she can pass on to players.
“I have always been a humble person that cares about others, and an honest person. From this, it makes me feel better and makes me feel that I make some difference in other people’s life, which gives me energy.
“After all the things I have been through, I have experienced a lot. People that have let me down, people saying to me that I will not make it to be a professional soccer player, people just looking down and telling me I can’t.
“It has made me work harder. It made me understand that there is no one out there that can tell me what to do or what not to do.
“So I have also become a very stubborn, confident and independent woman, which I’m really proud of. I don’t take shit and I always go after what I want, and work hard for it.
“From football I have learned a lot; football has made me the person I am today. Mostly about respect, to care about others, and it has taught me about love.
“Football has taught me how to become a good person. That has been the best lesson from all my years playing football.”
From the professional football dream she had at nine years old, Elena went and lived it with feeling, and that can never be taken away. The tenacity that got her there and brought her back from the brink so many times will be quite some characteristic to take forward with her from here.
That same Kristianstad teammate who recalled her beatbox effort (alright, it was Sif Atladóttir…) also told of her kindness and how she was ‘the life of the party in the locker room.’ Now she has a new chance to use that character and compassion. And who knows? Maybe the world has needed a beatboxing football coach!
In the fantasy scene created in this regular final question, other than keeping the ball below head height, there are no limitations. So we return Elena to where she belongs, as she is asked for four of the teammates from her career she might choose to join her team in a 5-a-side game.
“Wow that is a really hard question, especially when I have so many to choose between. I will do it a little bit easy for me and take the best players I have ever played with.
“Hedvig Lindahl – goalkeeper. I played with her in Kristianstad and she is not only a friend of mine but she was really inspiring me when we played together, telling me about stories in her life that made her grow in my eyes.
“An excellent goalkeeper; the best in the world for now. Caroline Seger (midfielder) – played with her in LdB FC Malmö, a fantastic player but even better person.
“She is that kind of a player that you need to have in your team. Can’t have a better captain than her in a team; just fantastic.
“Nilla Fischer (defender) – powerful woman, not only as a player but also as a person. She really stands up for herself and for what she believes in.
“She’s a really inspiring and cool person. I will never forget my first duel with her in my first training – best face plant I have ever done.
“Fridolina Rolfö (forward) – when we played together in the national team I remember always thinking ‘wow, she is so good.’ I don’t know why, but I have always thought that she is something special.
“She is not just a fantastic football player, she is a really good person as well. Always there for a laugh.”
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