Eni Aluko: Stand Empowered

Photography: Julien Tavel / Styling: Bevan Agyemang / Interview & Words: Ayo Fagbemi

Eni Aluko; a person of dignity and wealth. This is the Yoruba meaning of her name, and it suits her personality, demeanour and story fittingly. She walks into the room with a wide smile on her face and is instantly comfortable being the centre of attention during her shoot, standing powerfully in attire reminiscent of the many African Queens our media doesn’t portray nearly enough, whilst listening to the sounds of Queen B, her idol. Although, she immediately scolds me for saying that I’m more of a fan of Solange. 

The confidence in her ability and personality is something that doesn’t go amiss. Growing up in Birmingham in a council estate, her Nigerian heritage was something she didn’t get to explore. At the start of her life, football was her way to fit in with the crowd and be a part of English culture, being called ‘Eddie’ by the boys she played with. It wasn’t until studying law at university where she connected with her identity, a story I myself relate to. We discuss Afro-Caribbean Society events, filled with jollof rice and Afrobeats, and how important this process and community was in our lives. Giving us the chance to celebrate our identities, in a world that doesn’t reflect our stories enough. You can tell this experience helped her to combat her own trials and tribulations. Instilling a sense of reflection which has clearly brought her to a stage where she wears her Nigerian heritage boldly, being a shining light in the black British experience.

Although Eni is one of the Lionesses’ most important players both on and off the field, winning numerous titles and scoring goals at the highest level, you can tell this is still not enough for her – she has a drive and determination to achieve things in and out of the sport. Having previously trained and practised as a lawyer and having just written her first book ‘They Don’t Teach This,’ our conversation got me thinking, what is next for one of England’s most important footballers?

Dress Lili Zhou, Accessories Pebble London

Can you remember your first memory of playing football?

Growing up in Birmingham on a council estate, there was a big grass pitch to play on every day right outside the house. I couldn’t even tell you who taught me how to play, I think I was just born with the gift. Playing with the local boys, jumpers for goalposts, dribbling around coke cans, broken glass and running away from rotweilers; and just feeling accepted as part of a boys group. 

There were no other girls in my area, my identity as a kid was the girl that played football and I wanted to be one of the boys. I didn’t understand being a girl playing football, I told the boys to call me Eddie, as I just wanted to be one of them. 

Nigerian households are often football mad, what was yours like?

It was football mad, my Dad played football – my brother and I were Manchester United fans, with the class of 92, these guys were all my heroes. I used to pretend to be Ryan Giggs dribbling around on the estate, and I used to pop my collar like Eric Cantona. I was crazy about Manchester United.

Tell us about your relationship with your parents…

My Dad went back to Nigeria to pursue a political career, so I didn’t really have him around much. My mum stayed, she was someone that encouraged me, and never made feel I was strange for playing football as she recognised that it was a gift. I had a lot of freedom as a child, and in certain cultures, you are very much shaped in terms of your gender. But for me, that was never the case. She never made me feel like I should be intimidated by being one of the only girls in the boy’s team. I’m very grateful to my mother for that.

At an early age, what was it like having a father as a politician in Nigeria?

I went to Nigeria for my Dad’s inauguration, it was one of the first times I remember going to Nigeria. It was a big deal, my Mum was pregnant at the time, and it was very disorganised, we were part of a crush getting into the building, we had to say we were the Senator’s family. It was just a really awful experience and not something I expected going there for the first time, for me the association of politics and Nigeria at the time, was a negative one. I remember thinking, I want to go back home. 

So, for the longest time, Nigeria, my Dad, politics was something I shut away, and I guess part of this whole exploration now as a 32-year-old is to be able to say I have to be proud of all those elements of yourself. It wasn’t until university when I met other people from Nigeria who had similar experiences.

At a young age people used to call you Eddie, because of your name do you remember how that made you feel?

I didn’t have many Nigerian friends at the time – I knew there was something different about my identity. I just wanted to fit in as a kid with the boys, that is why I said call me Eddie, and it stuck. But looking back that was a kid that just wanted to be part of a clique, so desperately that I told them to change my name. This is the reality of my journey to get to where I am now. Now I am very much trying to stand out, and I am proud of all of it. I think it is a journey, and people have journeys with who they are, and that was mine. 

Interesting that you use the phrase, ‘standing out’ what triggered that for you?

University woke me up, I studied at Brunel which is a very multicultural place, with a lot of Nigerian, and British Nigerians who I explored my identity with, cooking jollof rice together, going to Church together. It really started off the process, and as an England player it is a balancing act, as you are one of a few; you can’t be too Nigerian, but you are never too English. I have always had to decide when am I going to show more of that side. And the Nigerian people asking why didn’t you choose Nigeria – which comes with a whole other baggage of conversation, it has been a real balancing act, and a lot of people go through the same thing when they have hyphenated identities. 

As a Yoruba Nigerian man, I know our names have powerful meanings, what does Eniola mean?

Eniola means a person of dignity and wealth, I love that about Yoruba names there is a lot of attached meaning. I really believe that whatever your name is, that kind of becomes your legacy. I really like my name, and I try to be accountable as much to it as possible.

How strong is your faith, and where does it come from?

My faith is really strong, as a kid, I had a childlike faith – I felt I could do anything, and started to question a lot of them through football, I would pray about winning and we would lose, and I would be like what is happening here. I still feel it is healthy to be curious and challenge your faith, and find your own way within it that. Now I have my own relationship in my own faith, rather than religion – the two are really different.

At school you had trouble from the Caribbean girls at school, why is it cool to be African now?

I feel like it is a movement, it is part of a movement that has been trying to break in for many years, listening to Fela Kuti, was proper Nigerian music that was globally, but not everywhere. Whereas now you don’t have to try that hard to know WizKid, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy – these are mainstream global artists now. People are also more open to different cultures influencing what they do. Grime music takes from Afrobeats, Afrobeats takes from Grime. It’s nice as when I was growing up in school being African was not as cool. Even the girls who were the Caribbean used to call me names, now that is not the case, we are black people who celebrate each other. 

What are your most memorable moments of playing football?

I spent six years at Chelsea, so the bulk of my success was there. Winning the league in 2015, winning the FA Cup for the first time at Wembley, winning Chelsea Player of the Year, playing in the Olympics with 75,000 people, which then was a big deal, but now is probably not because this is becoming the norm now. We were part of the first group of women who did that. More recently winning titles in Italy, which was an out of comfort zone challenge for me. I could have stayed at Chelsea, and been part of the furniture. So, leaving Juventus and having three trophies to have for that time really means a lot to me.

People see you scoring goals or lifting the trophy, people don’t see the isolation, the sniffer dogs at the airport at my bags. But those are the things, that when in ten years time, I am sitting on my sofa and looking at my trophy cabinet, that is why I went through it. Those are the things I am proud of, and obviously, 100 caps for England is not something that happens every day. 

You went through a lot as a black woman in the England squad & with the FA. Has the environment changed for the next generation of players?

I’m always careful not to label the FA with all different types of people – and I very much benefitted from the FA, and there are many people who helped me in my career, through law and media. However, I have experienced elements of the FA that didn’t do the right thing when it came to racism. And basically ostracising the black girl versus the institution. Whether that is institutionally racist or not, I will let people decide that. However, I feel like now they will be very careful and that will not happen again to another player of colour in the team or any female member of the team. It is not acceptable, we shouldn’t accept what the men would accept. So I think the FA, definitely have a lot to answer for but in terms of what they have done for women’s football – it has been amazing, with regular attendances, the growth of social media content, all that stuff is really positive.

You had to draw up the contract for the England team once – and with the Italian women striking for more money, the US suing the national body, Ada Hegerberg missing the World Cup and even Raheem Sterling in the men’s game,  how do you feel about activism within football?

I feel like players are finding their voice, and recognising their power in that voice. I think before, it used to be let me just kick ball and shut up. We are very much profiled individuals in society, so people expect us to have certain opinions in society. When we actually speak out about things it has a ripple effect in society more so than when journalists speak out. I’m really happy about that because it used to frustrate me a lot, so behind closed doors, players would let someone else say it for them. I feel more athletes should be involved in the conversation, as we benefit from society, and are exalted in society. Whether it is Grenfell Tower, or racism or sexism or gender pay, I try and educate myself so that I am adding to the conversation. I’m not saying everyone will agree with me. I’m just talking as a female footballer. I’m really happy to see people like Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Ada Hegerberg, Raheem Sterling – really kind of leading the way because I think more athletes need to be part of the conversation. 

You have recently signed up to the Common Goal initiative, what else is next for you?

The next steps for me are being involved in the decision-making side of football, at an exec level; building teams, recruiting players, being involved in the contracts, and building cultures, within environments, and trying to create a winning environment. That is what really has impacted me positively, understanding what does it take to be part of a winning team, what do athletes look like in winning teams, and bringing in new things like mental health. That is the next step for me in a Sporting Director type of role. Like even doing more media, and more creative stuff, a lot of people don’t think footballers can be creative. I am someone who has a lot of creative ideas, I wrote a book obviously, I wanna do a lot of creative stuff with that book. I want to own my own platform and brand – all sorts of things that I wanna do 2020 onwards – which I’m really excited to do. 

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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