PSG star Tabitha Chawinga of Malawi overcomes obstacles en route to Champions League success

Tabitha Chawinga wasn't always a prolific scorer. The Paris Saint-Germain star played goalkeeper in rural Malawi as a young girl.

A collision with a defender changed all that. Her mouth was bloodied.

“After that I stopped playing the goal, because I was afraid as well (of) my mom,” Chawinga says.

Her mother frowned on her playing soccer and would slap Chawinga to get her to stop, she says. It's one of the many obstacles she's faced during her rise to stardom. As a teenager, she was considered so good that one time she was forced to remove her clothes on the field to prove to the other team that she's female.

The 27-year-old Chawinga's confidence and positive attitude have helped her excel on three continents. She left Malawi for the lower divisions of Sweden at age 17 and later played in China before joining Inter Milan for a season, and now PSG.

She's filled up the scoresheet at each stop and this season has helped PSG reach the semifinals of the Women's Champions League, facing French rival Lyon on Saturday.

"My dream is one by one. I was dreaming to play in Champions League, now I’m in Champions League. I have a dream to win Champions League, who knows ... maybe we can win Champions League this year. I have a dream to become (a) player who can win Ballon d’Or, maybe the first woman in Africa. Anything can happen, only God knows,” Chawinga tells The Associated Press in an interview from Paris ahead of the first-leg semifinal in Lyon.

Chawinga — whose younger sister Temwa is an emerging star for the NWSL’s Kansas City Current — recalled playing soccer with the boys in her village and using balls made of plastic and paper.

"I was happy if I got to play football. But every time I come back my mom beat me, slap me. They wanted me to stop football. But this is the career from God, so I think God have very big future for me.”

Her parents wanted her to focus on education. Instead of obeying them, Chawinga pressed on.

“I watch Marta many times, so I was like, ‘One day I will be like this player,’” she says of the Brazil great. “Let me just encourage myself even if my mom and my dad they don’t allow me. It was a very big challenge ... until I leave my parents' house to go to the city to start playing football with the girls.”

Chawinga moved to the capital Lilongwe as a teenager to link up with girls' team DD Sunshine.

She had no trouble racking up goals — in fact, few of the boys at her old school would dare cover her for fear of being passed and then teased by classmates — and one senior player from an opposing team forced her to undress “in front of everyone" to prove she's female.

“It was a very big shame,” Chawinga says. “After the end of the game she came to apologize to me.”

Chawinga has spoken out about the need for Malawi soccer authorities to better protect female players, and says progress has been made.

“I don't want some other people to find the same challenge, like what I (experienced). If people love football, let them play football how they are."

Speedy and smart on the field, Chawinga has scored in each of her last nine matches — 12 goals in that stretch including the Champions League, French league and French Cup.

She leads the French league in scoring a season after she topped the charts in Italy for Inter Milan. Both seasons have been on loan because she remains under contract to Wuhan Jianghan University in the Chinese professional league until December. She transferred from Kvarnsvedens in Sweden to Chinese club Jiangsu Suning in 2018 when Chinese teams were spending heavily to import talent.

Amid Chawinga's scoring spree, PSG coach Jocelyn Prêcheur suggests there's plenty more to come.

“She's expressing herself more and more on the pitch, she's pretty much fully settled in, you can feel she's enjoying it, and that has an impact on her performances,” says Prêcheur, who also coached Chawinga in China.

Chawinga has secured several firsts for her country including the first Malawian to play in the Women's Champions League and first Malawian to score in any UEFA competition.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera feted Chawinga last summer in the presidential palace in honor of her Italian exploits.

Chawinga credits coaches and teammates for her success — she easily names teammates who provided assists on her goals and in which games.

She's also a big fan of her sister Temwa. They played one season together in China.

“Most of the time I say she’s a superstar more than me," Tabitha says. She smiles when asked if they'll play on the same team again someday. “Anything can happen.”

Chawinga describes her relationship with her parents as “real good.”

“I’m the person to take care of them now."

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer