Eniola Aluko: “There Was Nothing Like Me In Football”
Eniola Aluko is a champion in more ways than one. Previously described as the Wayne Rooney of women’s football, the 32-year-old striker has dominated British, American and European football over her 12-year international career, playing for popular clubs such as Chelsea, St Louis Athletica and now Juventus FC. Holding a bronze medal from the 2015 Women’s World Cup, a record of 33 goals scored over 102 matches playing for England, and the Women’s Super League top-scorer title in the 2016-2017 season, Eniola is an undeniable sporting force to be reckoned with.
Sitting down to talk with Reform the Funk earlier this year, Eniola is reflective about her personal and professional journey thus far and is especially excited to discuss the next chapters of her career. Most recently, the release of her debut book, They Don’t Teach This, which explores key themes around her multi-hyphenated identity, faith and self-validation and taking a stand against racism in football.
As one of Britain’s best known female footballers, Eniola carries herself with intellectual poise and a quiet confidence that over time has established her as a role model for many young women in sport and beyond. While she asserts that she did not initially plan to become a political and renowned voice in sport, Eniola has always found it instinctive to stand up for others. “In school, I was the person that wanted to stick up for people if I felt that there was something not right or just,” she recalls. “I’m a pretty laid back person but when I think something’s not right another side of me comes out.” With an inclination to represent people, as well as a family background in politics (her father worked as a politician in Nigeria), it made sense that she would be drawn to study law at university, graduating with a first-class honours degree from Brunel University and juggling a double life as a trainee solicitor and professional football player.
However, in 2015, Eniola decided to put her legal career on hold to fully concentrate on football - a move that might have been perceived as bold in the past. While Eniola mentions that she received support from her immediate family, she admits to struggling with her identity growing up as a young Nigerian girl on a Birmingham estate. She recalls feeling different as a child and found it difficult to be accepted as the girl who loves playing football amongst old-school stereotypes and cultural expectations that push girls away from sports. “I just always felt a little strange being the girl that played football,” Eniola shares. “I had a lot of identity crises when I was growing up. Not in the sense that I didn’t like myself but just didn’t understand the power of being different to everyone else”. Without adequate representation of women in football (“I didn’t see any women playing football on TV ever”) she resorted to telling extended family that she played tennis - a more “acceptable” sport for women at that time.
Now, Eniola has learned to reject the social pressures that categorise her identity in boxes of woman, black Brit, or even just footballer. As a previously appointed UN ambassador for gender empowerment in the UK, she hopes to inspire young girls with the idea that “you can be everything in one”. Her new book acts as another opportunity to spark layered and multidimensional conversations on women and diversity in sport. As well as explore and acknowledge the multiplicity of being a black British woman today, after years spent feeling disconnected to her African heritage (her parents moved to the UK when she was 1 years old) and the traditional views placed on her as a Nigerian woman, or fighting to be fully accepted as British when playing for England. An excerpt from the chapter ‘Embrace The Hyphen’ within her latest book reads:
Eniola further expands on the process of accepting her hyphenated identity, saying “that’s been a transition for me to understand and really celebrate both sides of me: the Britishness that I absolutely love and there [are] sides of being Nigerian that I absolutely love and I celebrate both.” This, it seems, is one of the key takeaways from her story: the power of self-worth and self-validation in a society that still works to limit and condense young women.
Overall, leaving a legacy for future generations is an important focus for Eniola, as she expresses no plans to slow down in her career just yet. Determined to continue playing a significant role in sport, she speaks of a future as a sporting director - a role where she can impact real change for women and black players at boardroom level. “I think there’s a lot of noise sometimes when athletes get racially abused on the field or whatever it may be. But not enough of a lobby [and] that’s what needs to come.” Her refreshingly principled and pragmatic approach to hard-work, as well as her optimistic outlook on new challenges, has served her well through the years, and as she starts to strategise ahead for a future away from football, leaves no doubt that we’ll see her winning in any given field.