Interview: Higher goal
Former England striker Eniola Aluko talks to Charissa King
The name ‘Eniola’, from Nigerian Yoruba culture, means ‘person of wealth’. It might sound like an apt phrase to describe a former England striker, now commentator and football executive. But Eniola Aluko’s wealth of character and accomplishments exceeds any earnings. Though some dismissed her footballing talent as a hobby best left on the south Birmingham estates where she first fell in love with playing the game, she went on to become a professional striker for clubs including Birmingham City, Chelsea and Juventus. She was the first British African woman, and the tenth woman, to gain 100 caps for England. Although at school some teachers doubted her academic ability, Aluko went on to achieve a first-class honours law degree, to practise law in the UK and US, and to negotiate better employment contracts for female footballers.
Sustained by an active faith in God, Aluko has achieved sporting success and faced struggles. Before the age of 35, she had been an Olympian, become the first female pundit on Match of the Day, and gone from competing in three World Cups to commentating on them. But when she spoke out about her experiences of racism in football, it nearly ended her international career. Her memoir, They Don’t Teach This, was published by Yellow Jersey in 2019, and is now available in paperback from Vintage.
When did you become a Christian?
I think I’ve always been one. I’ve always been God’s child. My mum always made us pray, made us aware of spiritual guidance and God’s influence on our lives, and the fact that we were blessed. But there’s a separation between what your parents teach you and your own relationship with God, and I really started to develop that relationship around the age of 16. I’d always felt that I was different, and some of the opportunities that were coming my way in life, the way things were shaped, made me think: This isn’t just me, this is divine intervention. And because of the foundations my mum laid within me, I was able to build on them with my own prayer life.
You say your mum made you pray. Does that mean it felt like a chore?
No, not at all. It was more that I lacked understanding of the power of it. You do what your mum says, and that’s it. But I lived vicariously through my mum, seeing the influence God had on her life, so it was kind of was downloaded into me by watching her. We said grace, we said the Lord’s Prayer. We recited Psalm 91, which is forever etched in my head. Whenever I’m on a turbulent flight, you’ll hear me say it. So it didn’t feel like a chore, more just like depositing seeds.
Did you all go to church?
I went to Elim Pentecostal Church in Birmingham, and it was really great. I was part of the choir. Loved it. For me, as a footballer, it was tricky, because we used to play on a Sunday, and my mum wanted us to go to church, but she also recognised that we needed to explore our gifts. As a result of that, I’ve kind of learned to have church anywhere. I’ve learned your relationship with God is everywhere. You can pray in the shower, in the car, walking into a meeting. Going to church is important, but that didn’t stop me from developing my relationship with God….
This is an extract from an article published in the March 2021 edition of Reform