Eni Aluko: ‘You just want to play, you don’t want to rock the boat’

Image credit: Getty Images/Chris Williamson

In an interview with The Cambridge Student, Chelsea star Eniola Aluko talks growing up, the Mark Sampson racism scandal and reforming sports’ governing bodies.

“It’s been a challenging episode,” Chelsea and England forward Eniola Aluko admitted with a grimace. “You have challenging moments in life when you really have to dig deep to find out what you’re about as a person, and that has been my last 18 months.”

With the Mark Sampson affair having only hit the front pages back in August, it can be easy to forget that for Aluko this is simply another chapter in a long struggle.

The 30-year-old, who has made 102 appearances and scored 33 goals for England, has not been selected for the national side since May 2016, when she was asked to take part in a ‘culture review’ by FA technical director Dan Ashworth. Told that the review would be strictly confidential, Aluko outlined that she had been the victim of bullying and discrimination from then England manager Mark Sampson, as well as making allegations of a remark in 2015 where he asked Drew Spence, a mixed-race player, how many times she had been involved with the police. A week later, Sampson came to Chelsea’s training ground to tell Aluko that he was dropping her for “unlioness behaviour”. For Aluko, it was a stark reminder of the impossible situation elite athletes find themselves in when lodging welfare complaints.

“It is really easy to just say speak to your coach or teammates,” said Aluko. “But unless there is a process in place to protect the individual it is very difficult.

“My advice for students, or athletes, it can apply to any workplace, is to collectively try and lobby for a system of anonymous complaints. It’s about feedback - being able to give positive or negative feedback without fear of retribution. Prior to my situation, I would just say you’ve got to report it.

“In professional sport you just want to play, you don’t want to rock the boat, so it is the responsibility of the governing bodies in sport to provide a system that protects the athletes.”

An internal investigation into the arrest remarks cleared Sampson of any wrongdoing, and an independent enquiry later commissioned by the FA reached the same conclusion, as well as clearing the England manager of a number of other allegations made by Aluko. Both decisions, however, were reached without interviewing Drew Spence. Aluko condemned the investigation as a “farce”.

Despite finishing top-scorer in the Women’s Super League in 2016, Aluko was still left out in the cold for the European Championships in Holland this summer, and accused Sampson of favouritism. The FA subsequently paid the forward £80,000 to “avoid disruption” ahead of the tournament. But with reports of a bullying complaint against Sampson emerging in August, Aluko finally spoke out about her experiences – including Sampson’s remarks that she make sure her Nigerian relatives did not bring Ebola to Wembley ahead of a friendly against Germany in 2014, and that goalkeeping coach Lee Kendall repeatedly spoke to her in a Caribbean accent. An astonishing maelstrom of controversy has followed, and with Mark Sampson out of the door, there are growing calls for bigwigs at the FA to follow suit. The whole affair was the subject of a parliamentary select committee inquiry last Wednesday, which shone a disturbing light on the FA’s gross mishandling of these discrimination allegations. Aluko declined to provide further comment.

But as trying as the scandal has been, the Chelsea star remains admirably resilient. “Being a professional athlete you find a way of just being able to channel that negative energy into something positive,” Aluko said. “And thankfully I have been able to develop that ability over the years.

“My agenda is to tell the truth. It’s to enact some changes for grievous procedures and complaints procedures for professional athletes. Hopefully we can move forward with that, make positive changes beyond my experience.” Professional athletes are after all often not employees, she points out, and have limited rights.

Talk soon turned to Aluko’s development as a player. Far from the sheltered existence of football academies, the Nigerian-born forward grew up simply enjoying a kick about with her brother Sone and his friends. “When I started women’s football was not an organised sport,” she said. “I grew up effectively playing with boys. It was challenging but it gave me the grounding to stand out.” Some of these challenges, as she would later reveal on the Union’s ‘Women in Sport’ panel, included open hostility from players and parents alike when she turned up on a Sunday morning.

At the age of 14, however, Aluko broke into the England set-up, and reaped the benefits of a more structured development system. She represented England at Under-17 level and appeared in the Under-19 European Championship Finals in 2003, before making her senior debut in September 2004, aged just 17.

However, with little prospect of securing financial self-sufficiency as a footballer, the Birmingham teenager had to negotiate the difficult balancing act of elite sport and academia, and she in fact sat an A Level History exam on the morning of England’s 2-1 defeat to Denmark at the 2005 Euros. She would go on to graduate in Law at Brunel University, and only then turn professional at the ripe old age of 22. Signed by MLS side St Louis Athletica as a discovery player in 2009 though, Aluko quickly made up for lost time.

“Playing in America was a real game-changer for me,” she admitted. “In the American system it’s pretty ruthless, they effectively trade you if you’re not good enough. So when I got there it was sink or swim. It really developed my winning mentality and my performance mentality. It just became more natural to be a professional.”

The complexion of women’s football is barely recognisable from what it was 10 years ago, when Aluko had her first spell at Chelsea. The UEFA Women’s cup was revamped as the UEFA Women’s Champion League in 2009, the Women’s Super League was founded in 2011, and the English football pyramid restructured and finally unified in 2014-15. It has been a truly remarkable evolution; yet there is still so much more work to be done.

“There needs to be change in the level of representation at the governing level for players,” Aluko said. “If you look globally there’s a lot going on with equal pay. You have the Danish team striking over their contracts, the US national team has just won a lawsuit on wages, half of the Brazilian players have retired in protest, and you have the Irish girls saying we no longer want to have to get changed in airport toilets. All of that can be changed if there are changes at the decision-making level. There’s a lot of decision-makers that simply don’t understand football.” There’s a lot of decision-makers that simply don’t understand basic moral decency, for that matter.

The Brazil situation indeed pertinently demonstrates Aluko’s point, a number of former players having recently signed an open letter arguing that “we, and almost all other Brazilian women, are excluded from the leadership and decision-making for our own team and our own sport.” The same might be said of the English FA. The same can definitely be said of FIFA, who has just six women on its 37-strong council. Unsurprising, then, that it allegedly spent almost as much on its ‘Best’ awards ceremony (£4.5 million) as it invested in women’s football last year (£5.1 million).

When asked later on the panel where the next step in women’s football needs to come from, Aluko was keen to reiterate her sentiment. “It does need to come from the federations. Fans are on board, the players are more professional – I think what you have is still at the decision-making level really archaic decision-makers who are not informed by athletes. I should see the Chief Executive of the Football Association much more than once a year because what he decides affects me directly and everybody else in the team. There needs to be a standard across federations to really put their money where their mouth and take things seriously.

“And it’s not just about equality. In the women’s US national team, equality would have meant being paid per game. That’s not ideal because what happens if you get injured or pregnant. So actually, it’s about fairness. It’s about governing bodies making high level decisions [that] really set the tone for the test of the world. I think everybody else is on board, they’re just lagging behind.”

And with women’s football’s growing popularity, comes greater accountability. “Women’s sport has seen a huge shift in professionalism,” she said. “The demands on them, the media attention, the scrutiny. What may have been acceptable 10 years ago when there wasn’t attention on women’s sport is no longer acceptable now. We all have to be more aware about what we say, what we do and how we perform, because women’s football is no longer in the shadows.”

As long as we have eloquent ambassadors of the game like Eni Aluko, things can surely only get better.

 

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