Anita’s parents were both born in Ghana, and came over to London, working as a general nurse and a security guard. Anita is the eldest of three siblings, as she has a brother and sister. Football began as one of many activities she played while on the local estate, with everyone congregating, and lots of working class families sharing communal green spaces. Street football was played in a number of spots, including The Cage, which was a multi sport ball court, and other pick up community games. This meant meeting with many kinds of kids, both boys and girls, usually organizing games through word of mouth. For instance, Anita lived next door to a secondary school, which she did not attend, and there was to be a football tournament, and so she went along. Anita told me ‘Football allowed me to stay out of trouble, there were a number of other distractions on the estate. Playing football against boys taught me how to earn the respect of other players, gave me a sense of ownership of the game, and to enter their space because I was good enough. I always gravitated to sport, especially football, especially at Primary school until the age of 11. My family was not sporty, although my Dad was a football fan but I always enjoyed it, gravitated towards it, and was passionate about it.
At secondary school there was netball, athletics, tennis and other competitive environments, and I had Ms Harding, my head of PE, who really encouraged me. But I found the gendered nature of school PE to be a barrier. Arsenal Centre of Excellence U14’s was organised at a sports centre in Hackney. At the centre of excellence is where I met and trained with Alex Scott, and other fellow youth internationals at the time Sheuneen Ta and Roschelle Shakes. This gave me my first real club experience. There were lots of girls just like me playing and training, and we all helped one another out, pooling car lifts to training, and supportive parents who helped out with the team. For more organized club football, Arsenal offered a tryout training camp, and the coaches down there he Arsenal training sessions with Rachel Yankey and Clare Wheatley. It was great for developing my sense of a club and ambition and how seriously they trained. Vic Akers helped my development by believing in my talent and nurturing its growth, with the training environment and playing opportunities. Pressure was being part of an already established winning team. I wanted to be part of that so I had to embrace it and perform to my best to break through to the senior team I would say. To get into England, I was first selected to an under 17s camp, aged about 15/16 years of age at Loughborough for squad try-outs. The whole process was overwhelming, as I wanted to get into the England team so badly, that it gave me a kind of stage fright, a performance anxiety. Back at Arsenal the club helped me. This taught me a lot about resilience, relying on yourself, navigating failure, and I had a lot of people who had my back as I worked through the experience. It helped, perhaps, that I am stubborn.
So I went back and worked my way through the England age squads, U17, U19, U21s and U23s. She captained the U19s in 2002, before making her senior debut in 2004. Named to the squad for the Euros in 2005, she was therefore a senior international player, when England made the finals of the Euros in 2009. This was only the second time this had been done, the first in 1984, when she had not even been born. She also played in the 2011 World Cup, and the 2012 Oltmpic Games, as a member of Team GB but was controversially not included in the squad for the 2015 World Cup, in spite of being nominated for FA Player of the year in 2014. She received her 50th cap in 2011, and has 70 appearances for England.
In terms of professional club football, after a brief move to Chelsea, in 2009 Asante signed professional terms for WPS franchise, Sky Blue FC in New Jersey, where she helped the club win the inaugural championship. Only five foreign nationals were eligible for each team so competition for places were intense. On 6 May 2010 Asante was traded to the Saint Louis Athletica, but when the team folded shortly after on 27 May 2010, she was acquired by the Chicago Red Stars, before being subsequently traded to the Washington Freedom on 6 August 2010. Although playing professionally with the likes of Abby Wambach, Sawa, Marta and so on was what Anita had always wanted as a professional player, the US league was a precarious way to earn a living. In December 2010 Asante returned for a second spell at Sky Blue FC, after Jim Gabarra, her coach at Washington Freedom but the WPS folded the next year. With Therese Sjögran and Jessica Landström. suggesting a move to Sweden, playing first for Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC, before Anita signed for national champions LdB FC Malmö who became FC Rosengård, before signing again for Chelsea, and, in 2020, for Aston Villa FA in their first season in the Women’s Super League.
With both a BA and Masters degree from Brunel, Asante had planned beyond her career in professional football. She has branched out in recent years to co-comms and punditry, is an ambassador for Amnesty, and had done some equality, diversity and inclusion work at FIFPro and for the FA. Having also explored coaching, editorial work, and PhD study there are a range of career options available when she decides to transition out of playing football at the highest level.
Eniola Aluko ‘They Will Ask, What Did She Stand For?’
In our interview Eniola Aluko, was very clear that she wanted to make history and leave a legacy, so that those inspired by her in the future would ask, what did she stand for? The answer, is that Aluko is an inspiring and multi talented leader. She has never just played football. The first woman of British-African heritage to 100 caps for England, Eni typifies the career of the new professional women footballers, having played in the US and Spain as well as the UK. Aluko joined a professional US club after graduating in the UK, and her post England career has combined media and presenting work, with journalism as a Guardian columnist, a Masters degree and executive leadership at Aston Villa FC. Aluko was appointed UN Women UK ambassador with a focus on promoting gender empowerment in 2016, and in October 2018 she was named by Marie Claire as one of ten Future Shapers Award Winners, recognising individuals who are changing women's futures for the better. Although it is often considered something of a contradiction that young sports people should write their autobiography quite so early, Enola Aluko wrote her memoir They Don't Teach This explicitly to inspire readers to be the best version of themselves. There are plenty of reasons that 2019 was not too soon for the publication of this book.
Club Football Eniola Aluko, born in 1987, was originally born in Lagos Nigeria, and moved to Birmingham at the age of six months, with her parents Sileola and Daniel. Aluko’s British-Nigerian identity, and British-African dual heritage is a key theme of her memoir. While Daniel returned to Nigeria to pursue a career in politics, Sileola worked as a nurse and then for a pharmaceutical company. From an upper-middle class background, the move nevertheless placed the family on an inner city estate, and Aluko has been vocal about the place of her family values, and the importance of her faith in overcoming the challenges that she has faced. She grew up playing football and other sports with her brother Sone Aluko, who also went on to a professional career in football. Sone went on to play for England youth teams before opting to play for Nigeria as an international Aluko started her career at Leafield Athletic Ladies, as many women’s football teams still call themselves, and subsequently played for Birmingham City Ladies, with future England teammate, Karen Carney. A strong forward player, Aluko scored on her Birmingham team debut, aged 14. She played for the senior team from 2001-2004, and by 2003 Aluko was named Young Player of the Year at the FA Women’s Football Awards. She moved to play club football at Charlton Athletic from 2004-2007, and Chelsea 2007-2009. Eni also obtained a first class law degree at Brunel University.
Aluko therefore joined women’s football in England at a time when new forms of semi-professional, and professional careers were now possible, with the Women’s FA Premier League the top flight available to women from 1991 to 2011 when the FA Women’s Super League was launched. Over in the United States, several British players had obtained athletic scholarships, like Kelly Smith. This could lead to lucrative and prestigious coaching and professional contracts when professional women’s leagues were launched, following the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Los Angeles, where 93,000 spectators watched the final in the Rose Bowl, proving a market for women’s football. The Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) was one of these iterations of professional leagues, established in 2009. So Aluko moved to the US as a professional player for St. Louis Athletica in late 2008, in the WPS, but soon team finances and league structures were shown to be precarious. Although Eni was their top scorer in 2009, the team ran into financial difficulty in 2010 and Aluko signed for Atlanta Beat, but was then traded to Sky Blue FC and at the end of the 2011 season returned first to Birmingham City, and then Chelsea in 2012. In 2018 she joined Juventus, where she ended her career as their top scorer, and retired early in 2020.
102 England Caps Having chosen to play for England, working her way through the talent identification system, and youth squads, Eniola’s senior debut came with England in 2004. Aluko would go on to win 102 caps in her England career, mainly under longtime coach Hope Powell. Aluko also became an Olympian, in the Team GB squad for the 2012 Olympic Games, the first major FIFA women's tournament in the UK, and the first time a team representing Great Britain took part in the women's tournament. Team GB finished fifth in the twelve-team tournament, won by the US. However, after the Olympic Games, and the disasterous 2013 Women’s Euro campaign, Powell’s fifteen year term of management came to an end. So when Aluko became the first British-African woman to win a hundredth cap for England it was under new manager Mark Sampson, an inexperienced coach with no international playing expertise or top management qualifications, who was employed by the FA in 2014. Sampson was 30 years of age, and Aluko 28, and now a senior England player. Although she achieved her hundredth cap, it was under muted circumstances, as Aluko was substituted in the second half and hastily handed the armband to mark a brief captaincy. Two matches later she was dropped from the England squad for ‘Un-Lioness Behaviour’, although no one really understands what that phrase means. Although the exact details of this are in the media, and do not need to be repeated here, Sampson had the problem. In 2016 Aluko filed a complaint to the FA which detailed bullying and racial discrimination, as well as a broader culture of harassment in Sampson’s approach to coaching the England team. Mark Sampson was later sacked in 2017, not for these allegations, but for safeguarding issues in a previous role.
When Aluko was dropped and the allegations about her were being made in the media, Nikita Parris, a young Black-British England player ran to support Sampson when she scored a goal in a 6-0 defeat of Russia in September 2017. The rest of the England squad followed. In the middle of the Black Lives Matter debate in July 2020, Parris would apologise to Aluko, and this has been accepted. Sampson also apologised to Aluko in January 2019, the same month that he received payment for unfair dismissal from the FA. Between 2016 and 2017, two internal FA inquiries had found no wrongdoing. However, the second led to an FA payout for £80,000 to Aluko for loss of earnings as a centrally contracted England player. Later, a hearing of the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), showed the flaws in Sampson’s management, ending the career of both Lianne Sanderson, who had 50 caps until that point, Drew Spence, and Aluko. The calm, clear and professional manner in which Aluko conducted herself at the DCMS hearing, was in marked contrast to the flustered responses of the FA executives. Aluko has written about forgiveness as a positive decision in her 2019 autobiography They Don’t Teach This, and remains gracious, if forensic, in her account of the situation. There is though, the wider problem of the lack of diversity in the FA as an institution, and in British football generally, at leadership level. So, in the memoir Aluko is very concerned not to be defined by this incident, asking us to focus on her many achievements, not on a situation which was not of her creation. In our interview, I asked Aluko the individual to whom she most looked to in her aspirations for her career, and her answer was surprising: Oprah Winfrey. So, with her move now to sports executive, and media personality there is every chance she will transcend the incident that ended her England career and continue to excel in the many fields in which she wishes to explore.