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.
Your mum sounds like an incredible person.
Your parents are parents, and then they become friends later on in life. Writing the book, I’ve been reflecting: My mum was really cool. She allowed me to be myself, because women’s football at the time wasn’t exactly cool. I’m very grateful for her.
You’ve said it took time for you to realise that God’s purpose for you was to be a footballer because God also created you a woman. What was that like for you?
I was trying to figure it out: it was a bit odd to have this gift, when only boys were playing football in the local area. Why have I got this gift? It’s great, and I’m accepted by all the boys, but it wasn’t the norm. How are we going to work this out? Female football wasn’t something I could see on TV, but it was definitely a gift. No one taught me how to play football. I just played, and watched on TV and replicated what I saw.
I was put on this earth to do this. Things have happened in my life, and I’m like: That is God. After I graduated from law school, and was getting rejected by law firms, I got a random call from a coach in America saying: ‘You can play football and also be a lawyer.’ I could never have made that happen.
How did the 2012 Olympics change things?
That was a watershed moment for women’s football in this country. First of all, we opened the Olympics, so the viewing figures made it an incredible event and, all of a sudden, people were like: Wow, women’s football is actually OK. And the Olympics was very much a celebration, no sport was snubbed, everything was seen as part of this incredible event. Whereas women’s football had always been in the shadows of men’s football, it was able to breathe in a space of real huge sporting celebration. It was a sea change. Clubs started investing more, players started getting better contracts. We’re all very grateful.
The Olympics also gave me a broader perspective of what sport is all about. Bringing people together, sacrifice, hard work. One day I walked into the lift, in the GB kit, and Mo Farah was in there with the same kit. I was star-struck, and he looked at me as if to say: ‘We’re on the same team.’ It was like a dream.
Women’s football still has challenges to overcome.
Definitely. But I think the challenges that we’re overcoming now are because it’s at a professional level, and with more success comes more scrutiny. The respect level now for women’s football has completely changed. A new generation of young girls can say: ‘I want to play for Arsenal,’ and there’s pathways for them to do that. I didn’t have that. I became a professional almost by accident, and I’m really proud to have been part of that change.
It’s interesting to hear you describe it as ‘women’s football’, rather than just ‘football’. Is there a tension between those terms?
I don’t think so. We have to own and celebrate the fact that we’re women who play football, because women are different. We have different mindsets, we have different bodies. The level of physicality isn’t the same because God made us different. What’s amazing is that women often can do far more with their potential than they realise. You’re seeing women playing a sport that inspires other women to be the best version of themselves.
Your example of following your legal dream as well as being a pro footballer has made an impact in the same way.
There’s a chapter in my book called ‘Embrace the hyphen’, which is partly about how I balance my Nigerian and British identity and the gymnastics that come with that as an England player. But it’s also about celebrating the multidimensional nature of who we are as people. You can be a doctor and a footballer and a mother. That’s more healthy, I think, than the whole ‘stay in your lane’ thing.
How has your faith sustained you during the hard times of your career?
My faith was definitely the sustenance. I think that when you have a core identity in God, even when you’re going through the worst storms, you can say: ‘God is allowing this to happen for me to come out the other end better. I’m God’s child. “He who is in me is greater than he who is in the world.”’ God is greater than whatever’s trying to bring me down right now. You have to understand who you are in God, otherwise you can get flung around by people’s applause or criticism.
Learning that also helped your game, didn’t it? You’ve said it gave you that freedom to recapture the child in you that was able to play more freely.
Yeah, I was seeking perfection all the time and it made me really anxious about failure. ‘If I don’t win this, this is going to be disastrous for my entire life.’ But if you say: ‘God has already orchestrated my end goal,’ you can enjoy it and let go and just give your best. It’s not easy because, as an athlete, your whole life is: ‘Do this, get this result.’ My life is always measured by goals. I just need to give my best and honour God in whatever I’m doing. We can never be perfect.
Do you think that racism in Britain is getting better or worse?
I think that in the English language there are ten different ways of saying one thing, and that leads to covert communication and covert thinking that is difficult to deal with. So lots of bias goes unsaid, but it’s there. There are lots of blind spots that people express without knowing it. We need to do a lot of work in organisations and in schools about checking that bias. I’m having a lot of conversations about the lack of diversity in the executive and coaching in the top levels of sport, which is often because the people that recruit don’t attach competency to anything other than white. I come in as a football director, as a black woman, and I know a ton of people who are very competent and who are black, so straightaway that broadens the whole recruitment process.
We’ve got a long way to go, but I think the conversations that happened after the killing of George Floyd opened up a lot of self-reflection from people, black and white: What am I thinking? What am I doing about this? And I think that’s really healthy.
Some Christians object to the statement ‘Black lives matter’, because all lives matter to God.
How would you address such comments?
I would say that you have to look at the lives of God’s people that are being affected. It’s not an exclusive statement, ‘Black lives matter’, it’s saying black lives matter because they’re the ones that are being killed and facing police brutality right now, particularly in America. If you believe that all lives matter, then you will respect that. I also think it goes back to those biases: ‘Why are black people getting so much attention? They’re not meant to get this much attention.’ It’s disappointing that that comes from Christians because Jesus reached out to the most rejected, isolated people in society, saying: ‘The last will come first.’
You learned how to forgive the hurts caused by your ordeal with the FA. What advice can you give about how to forgive?
This is the toughest part of my walk with God, because you can’t delete things like that. They’re there, they happened and it’s painful, but I think you have to figure out what forgiveness looks like for you. So it may be sending a ‘well done’ to somebody that you don’t actually like that much. Which is something I’ve done recently actually, and there was a release that came from doing it. Feeling they don’t deserve congratulations because of what they did, that’s not good for you. That’s only really affecting you.
Recently I hired somebody who I hadn’t spoken to for about 20 years, a former coach of mine. I left the club where he worked because I wasn’t happy with how he managed certain things and how he treated me. But I always recognised that he was a very good coach, and he was only trying to do the best by what he felt at the time. He said: ‘Thank you so much for not holding a grudge. You saw me for what I am now.’ And it really spoke to me, because I hadn’t even thought about it until he reminded me, but when you’re in a positive space and you’re focusing on yourself, you don’t have time to be thinking about grudges. That’s not what God wants for us. God deals with people.
Another example: one of the FA officials who was part of that case came up to me two years later at the men’s World Cup and apologised for everything that happened. And in that moment I was annoyed, thinking: You have had two years to drop me a note about this. But I said: ‘Thank you for coming over and apologising. Enjoy the game.’ What I was feeling was very different to what I said, but he left going: ‘Wow, that was a positive conversation,’ instead of going back to how we felt two years ago.
What’s next for you?
I think the Covid world has really made people reset, and my reset has been: Make sure that you’re always very grateful that you’re alive and healthy, and have a roof over your head, and have family that love you. So what’s next for me is making sure that I’m always pouring into those things my health, staying fit, spending time with my family, spending time with friends.
And then always challenging myself in my career to do things that are of value, helping women to be the best version of themselves. I’m in a position where I can really influence and shape the game. And just speaking to God: ‘Do you want me to do this?’ I’m in that place where I’ve tried to simplify life a little bit, and just enjoy the simple things.
This article was published in the March 2021 edition of Reform