Playing a life of two halves

The Times, October 17, 2006

AS ENGLAND’S women footballers celebrated this month’s qualification for the World Cup in China next year, their No 9 could be forgiven for wondering how on earth she is going to juggle her training schedule with her academic commitments. For Eniola Aluko, who won her thirteenth cap in the 1-1 draw with France that secured qualification, is not just a striker with dazzling pace and unerring touch in front of goal. She is also a second-year law student at Brunel University.

“I come from a family of lawyers in Nigeria,” the Charlton Athletic semiprofessional says, “and have always been passionate about the law.” But passion for the law runs side by side with devotion to the beautiful game. “My father is now a senator of a large province in Nigeria, but he played for Brentford and his country, and my brother Sone is on Birmingham City’s books,” says Aluko, 19, who adds that “football has always been a form of expression for me”.

Aluko’s footballing career has already had some notable successes. She was named Young Player of the Year at the Women’s FA Awards in 2003, and made her debut for the senior team, at the age of 17, having come through the ranks of the Under-19s and Under-21s. Her first England goal came against the Czech Republic at Walsall in May last year. She added two more to her tally in a 13-0 away win over Hungary, and then, this year, consolidated her growing reputation by scoring the goals for Charlton in their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the FA Nationwide Women’s Premier League Cup Final.

Aluko has become one of the England team’s key players, thanks to excellent close control allied with blistering pace. While initially her attributes were utilised from the bench, she is now a regular in a team whose success in reaching China 2007 was praised by Steve McClaren, the England head coach. “Anyone involved in football dreams of playing in the World Cup finals and testing yourself against the best teams and players in the world,” he says. “Now England’s women have that chance. Everyone in the men’s side is delighted that the women have got through.”

At the same time as excelling on the football pitch, Aluko kept her eye firmly on her academic ambitions. While playing for England during Women’s Euro 2005, she took her A levels at Woodrush High in Birmingham, and now, as a Brunel University undergraduate, she remains focused on her studies. “You need to be disciplined and have an organised mind to juggle training and playing with study,” Aluko says, “but I prefer to be busy and active, so the two things — law and football — have become part of my life now.” Charlton and England’s gain is, however, Brunel University’s loss, as Aluko explains: “There are superb sports facilities here and a strong athletic tradition, but my commitments mean that I can’t play for the university. The logistics are too complicated.” So, too, is the law — but Aluko has no doubt where she wants to be in a few years’ time. “I want to qualify as a solicitor and go into sports law. It’s such a growing field and would be the perfect way of combining my love of football and law.”