My Dear Friend Football, Thank You
BY ENI ALUKO
I’m writing this letter to you because a chapter of our friendship is about to close. I have decided to retire as a professional footballer. When we first met 25 years ago, I could never have imagined the crazy, unbelievable journey you would take me on.
As you know, there were no professional female footballers back then.
And it’s hard to chase something that you can’t see.
When we met, you made me fall in love with Manchester United. I was just a girl from a council estate in Birmingham, but whenever I popped my collar I’d turn into Eric Cantona, with all his swagger and seeming superpowers.
Whenever I ran down the wing I’d feel like Ryan Giggs. You might not know this, but when I cried in front of the TV after United lost the 1995 FA Cup final to Everton, Mum worried that I was too obsessed with you. She told me to remove the posters of Cantona and Giggs from my bedroom. I guess she was right that I could be a bit distracted at school, and you certainly didn’t help me in that regard.
But you did help me to achieve some incredible things, such as playing professionally in the U.S. and in Italy, and playing for England.
I connect the dots backwards now and see all the full-circle moments you have given me. You even made one of my posters come to life.
After all, you were the reason I travelled to Moscow for the 2018 World Cup to work as a TV pundit. And who joined me there in the studio? Ryan Giggs. I must admit I was freaking out. I told him, “Uhm … this is very weird for me because I was slightly obsessed with you when I was younger.” He just shrugged it off, you know? “Yeah, right, whatever.” We had a gym at our hotel where we’d go every morning before the show.
Soon Giggs was texting me, going, “Hey Eni, are you coming to the gym?” I would try to play it cool, but inside I was like, Ryan Giggs is texting me to train with him in the gym. Arghhh, this is crazy!! You made me have to pinch myself.
It was the same story when I got to meet the Queen. Actually, I met her twice! The first time she came to Brunel University to give me an Outstanding Achievement in Sport award. How surreal — the Queen giving me an award! When she asked me a question, I got tongue-tied and got my words in a twist. Gosh. Thank God it went better the second time, when I was invited to Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Young Leaders Awards … again, surreal.
I remember sitting next to David Beckham there. Jimmy Choo, the designer, commented on my shoes. What are the chances? I felt like I had tumbled into a fantasy world.
Even now, I am perplexed about all of this. How does a girl like me get invited to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen?
How does a girl like me get to be live on national TV with Ryan Giggs?
You certainly are full of surprises, my friend. Then again, had somebody told me about this when I was a little girl, I would not have believed them anyway.
Remember how things were for female footballers back then? I can recall Mum taking a photo of our team, and I was the only girl in it. It was always Eni and the boys. But whereas they had role models, I didn’t. There was no women’s football on TV. The idea of turning pro was just unthinkable at the time.
So a few years later, when I was going to college (which in England is kind of like high school) and playing for Charlton (who were by no means a professional team), Mum insisted that I go to university. I agreed: Football was surely not going to pay the bills. I had to get a proper education.
Onceagain I have to thank you for what you did. When I graduated and began applying for jobs at law firms, I was disillusioned. Charlton had just folded. Chelsea weren’t interested in much more than investing in water bottles for the women’s team. Nobody really cared about the English league.
Then out of nowhere, Jeff Cooper, the owner of St. Louis Athletica, who were playing in the professional women’s league in the U.S., called me and offered me a contract with the team and a job at his law firm. In one stroke you took away my worry and fear. That is something I’ll never forget.
And then we almost left each other. Do you remember when we fell out back in 2011? Well, I think it’s time that I explain my side of things. When St. Louis folded in 2010, less than two years after I had arrived, and I signed for the Atlanta Beat for a lot of money, it felt cool that football mattered so much and that the sums involved were so high in comparison to what I’d ever been paid back home.
But our relationship has never been about just money. When I wanted to leave later that year and Atlanta agreed to trade me, I said, “Just don’t trade me to New Jersey.” I just didn’t want to go there. But they traded me there anyway, to Sky Blue FC. I was stunned, pissed off, lost
I remember meeting my agent, Misha, in New York soon after and saying, “I’m going to retire. I am done with football”. I was 25 at the time — what a shame that would have been. You had other plans, though, and brought the 2012 Olympics to change all that negativity I was feeling. I was like, “O.K., the Olympics first, then I’m done.”
Of course, again, I could never have imagined that the Olympics were going to be such a big deal. What happened in London that summer, when Great Britain entered a women’s team at the Olympics for the first time, changed my whole passion for the game, as well as the course of my career. You saved me. We won all our three games in the Group Stage, beating Brazil at Wembley, and reached the quarterfinals. It was electric. People suddenly had an appetite for women’s football. And I wanted to be a part of that.
Since then there have been other moments when I have thought about leaving you. I have to be honest about that. I’m talking about the racism, the abuse on social media, all that. Women do not earn much in football, we play because we love the game.
Sometimes I have thought, Is it worth it? Do I love you enough? And every time the answer has been yes.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had we never met. I was always a smart kid, so I feel I would have turned out O.K. anyway. But would I be as confident? Would I be as comfortable speaking in public? Would I be a reference for other women? Would I be as happy, or as passionate about life?
I don’t think so.
Some people say that you are just a sport, but you have taught me so much about life. You have shown me how to work with others, how to set targets and achieve them, how to embrace challenges. You have given me highs that I never thought were possible, and lows that challenged me to my core — but that also made me strong and resilient. You have given me friends whom I will cherish for life.
I have seen you lift people out of poverty. I have seen you unite people from all countries, cultures and religions. I have seen you provide loners with a family — with teammates who care.
And you have given me the dream of playing in the U.S., the pride of representing England, the thrill of winning titles with Chelsea, the adventure of playing for Juventus in Italy. Whenever I have faced obstacles, you have shattered them. Whenever I have had great expectations, you have exceeded them.
Not long ago, I was out in Turin when I saw a poster. On it were the male Juventus footballers that everybody knew, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and … me. You know what it reminded me of? The photo Mum had taken of me when I was playing for the all-boys team at school.
It was one of those moments when it felt as if life had come full circle. As if all of this was meant to be, as if my career had been planned to the letter long before it started — not by me, but by God.
Why was I chosen to do this? Why me?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, my friend. In any case, I want to tell you that I feel very content with my career. There are a few things I did not achieve, but I know I can’t have it all. I took the hardest option every time, and I think I have been rewarded for it
feel people respect me for the player I have been and the goals I have scored, but also for the way in which I have helped move the women’s game forward.
Girls today have role models. They can watch women play football on TV. Diversity and equality are on the agenda. Women are using their voices and their feet to break barriers all over the world. I would say that women have never been in a more empowered position, and I am proud to have been part of the generation that has made that happen.
But I don’t want to stop now.
People tend to think that when you retire as a player, your story ends. But to me this is just a new chapter. And while I can’t tell you about my next step just yet, I can say that I will keep working to drive the women’s game forward, much like I tried to do for all those years as a striker. I’ll be striving to give women key positions in football, to help get the game more coverage, finance and growth and new opportunities.
I honestly believe that women’s football will continue to hit an even higher level in the next few years. And I want to do my part to make sure that happens.
But even as I prepare for this new challenge, I cannot forget what we have done together. I cannot forget the coaches, mentors, professors, professionals and advisers you have introduced me to who have had a significant impact on my life. Whenever I look at the medals, photographs and memorabilia in my living room, I know how much I owe you. You are a part of me.
So I thank you, dear football, for everything you have given me. For the full-circle moments and the unexpected journey.
Now it is my turn to repay you