Eniola Aluko: ‘The England team is not diverse, we can do better’
Eniola Aluko has been involved in top-level football for over half her lifetime. She broke into Birmingham City’s first team aged 14 and from there the only way was up.
She fired Birmingham to the second-tier title aged 15. She made her England debut at 17. Then on to Charlton, Chelsea and club football in the USA and Italy.
To three World Cups – including a third-place finish in 2015 – and two European Championships during a 102-cap international career. Oh, and let’s not forget three WSL titles, two FA Cups, a Scudetto and a Coppa Italia.
Now she is at the top of the game in a different sense, in the boardroom as sporting director of the NWSL’s newest club, Angel City, who are part-owned by Serena Williams, Eva Longoria, Natalie Portman and Mia Hamm as well as Aluko herself and are bringing women’s soccer back to Los Angeles after an 11-year hiatus.
In all that time at the top, it might have been easy to fall out of love with it, to become frustrated as the game’s essence becomes more and more diluted the more other elements you are required to factor in. There have certainly been difficult moments for Aluko along the way.
But it doesn’t appear that she’s forgotten. Football? Well, she says, “football is an accessible sport for everyone. It’s a community sport. A grassroots sport. You know, I started playing football in my local area, with the boys on a Sunday. It was just fun, right?”
It still is. The windy, rainy, muddy, sweaty, sweary, angry, happy maelstrom of the pitch on the park on a Sunday. It’s still fun. And maybe that’s why Aluko is coming back.
She’s speaking now on behalf of the Dream Transfer campaign, promoted by eBay, that is raising money for Football Beyond Borders, a brilliant organisation that works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to provide educational support and promote social inclusion.
Run during the January transfer window, Dream Transfer gives any of the UK’s Sunday league teams the chance to sign Aluko or former Brazil full-back Roberto Carlos, who will lace up their boots and return to the pitch for one glorious game.
“It’s a great campaign,” Aluko says. “Football Beyond Borders is an organisation I’ve worked with before. They do great work in terms of educating disadvantaged people through football.
“I was really, really keen to be involved. And obviously Roberto Carlos is involved. It’s not bad to be part of a campaign with him.”
It’s also causing Aluko to think back on the days before she made it among the elite, to reflect on why football was and is so significant to her. “For me growing up, I was always the only girl that played with the boys in the area, in Kings Norton in Birmingham, and I was very much accepted through football,” she says.
“It was my way of becoming popular, my way of hanging out with the boys that were good at football. I didn’t have many other friends that were girls, or any girls who looked like me.
“It was a big thing for my identity as well. I didn’t really understand that. But now looking back, football was a big part of me feeling confident. And all of that was done outside my estate, jumpers for goalposts, kicking the football around.”
It was not always quite as straightforward as that. “Later on I realised that I did have some difficulties. You know, parents at school saying, ‘Why is a girl playing?’,” she says.
“Growing up in the 90s, it’s not like it is now where you’ve got pathways, you’ve got grassroots football for girls, you’ve got academies, there was nothing like that.
“It wasn’t until I got to 12, 13 that I got into the Birmingham team and was playing with women much older than me. So it was tough, but I think it shaped my character as a young player.”
Throw🔙 to 2️⃣0️⃣1️⃣6️⃣ = the year Eni Aluko won the Golden Boot 🥇
Sit back, relax and enjoy some of her best goals 🍿 pic.twitter.com/roTsDsJEwe
— Barclays Women's Super League (@BarclaysWSL) October 20, 2021
That character took her to the career given far too brief an outline earlier on, the most significant moments of which came with Three Lions on her shirt. Her time with England is now remembered as much for how it ended as for what she achieved, but there were more good times than bad.
She recalls it with satisfaction: “My peak achievement was definitely achieving 100 caps. Obviously, three World Cups, two European Championships within that. I’m very proud of that. I was in the team for 11 years. I was very consistent throughout that time.
“The professionalism that happened over the course of that time within the women’s game, I think I sort of grew with that. And you know, when it mattered, I scored goals. I always valued playing for England, so to be able to retire with 102 caps means a lot to me.”
Now, the England team is marching apace towards this summer’s Euros, which will kick off at Old Trafford on July 6 with Sarina Wiegman’s side taking on Austria.
The Dutch coach took over in September 2021 and England have scored 53 goals without reply in her six games so far. Though the standard of the opposition has sometimes been questionable, the signs are undoubtedly positive.
“I think [Wiegman] was a great appointment,” Aluko says. “I think that she is exactly what the England team needs.
“England have done so well, getting to back-to-back semi-finals of the World Cup and the Euros, but aren’t able to get past that stage.
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“With Sarina Wiegman, you have a coach who’s done that. She’s won the Euros with the Netherlands. She’s won at a home tournament as well, which is really big given the Euros is going to be in England.
“She’s coached some of the best players in the world, which I think England now has. I’m sure she will have the respect of the players. She seems very popular and likeable with players.
“England will be going into that tournament expecting to win it, or being one of the contenders to win it.”
There are some concerns for Aluko around the England team and women’s professional football in England though, consequences of the changes to football pathways for girls, unintended perhaps, but damaging nonetheless.
“You’re seeing a lot of clubs now having their women’s teams based out of the training centres for the men,” she says, citing the examples of Chelsea and Tottenham as well Aston Villa, where she was sporting director until May 2021.
“It’s great, but the pathways for the younger ages are based out of places in the suburbs, which a lot of kids from lower-income families can’t get to because their parents can’t take them.
“That means you’re seeing a lack of diversity coming into the game now. When I was younger, football was based around the community centres or inner cities.
“I think there has to be a better recruitment drive for a more diverse range of young girls from the community. At the moment you’re seeing a more middle-class demographic playing girls football.”
That, she says, has a knock-on effect at the pinnacle of the game: “If you look at the England women’s team now, they’re successful, they’re a great team, but again, there’s not a lot of diversity or inclusion on the team.
“When I played for England, I was part of a team where Hope Powell was the coach, we had people of colour on the team. It was fairly diverse. I think that’s got worse as the years have gone by.
“There may be so many different factors to that, but I think that what I’ve just said about accessibility to the game from a younger age group has had an impact on the pathway up to the senior team and that’s why you see a team that’s very… you see a team that’s just white, basically. I don’t know any other way to put it.
“It’s just not a diverse team and I think that we can do better than that. When you look at the men’s team, which is very diverse, I don’t understand why there’s such a stark difference.”
By Joshua Law