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England footballer Eniola Aluko: “Girls feel they’re not welcome in sport”

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One of the stars of British women’s football has spoken out about the challenges of encouraging young women into sport.

Eniola Aluko, who plays for England and Chelsea, was the guest editor on today’s episode of Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. She said it is crucial that sport in England starts to “understand females more, and engage with: why do girls drop out of sport? Why do they feel that they’re not welcome in sport, or they can’t achieve in sport? There are reasons behind that.”

The 29-year-old striker was scouted for the England women’s team as a teenager while playing for a local club in her hometown of Birmingham, and said that playing football had given her a sense of identity and “self-worth” from a very young age.

However, she observed that many teenage girls struggle with self-confidence when playing sport. When she was at secondary school in Birmingham, she said, many of her female classmates refused to take part in P.E. because of a lack of shower facilities.

“They didn’t want to be sweaty and they didn’t want their hair to be greasy,” Aluko said. “Now [those] might sound like aesthetic silly reasons, but those are the reasons at the end of the day, and for them that’s quite important.”

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Eniola Aluko training with the England women's football team in April 2016

In England, some two million fewer women than men aged 14 to 40 play sport regularly. Yet 75 per cent of women say that they would like to be more active, according to research by Sports England’s “This Girl Can” campaign.

When those women were questioned on what was stopping them from playing sports, many women said they were put off by a fear of judgement: of their appearance, of their ability, or of how they chose to spend time on themselves.

Speaking on Radio 4, Aluko said that the issue was “not necessarily the girls who are playing – it’s the environment they’re playing in”. Whether girls are playing sports in school or in local clubs, she said, those environments should “[make] these girls feel that they’re the greatest thing in the world because they’re playing – rather than feeling like they’re a bit weird”.  

Aluko made history in 2014 when she became the first female Match of the Day pundit. This summer, she is covering the Euro 2016 tournament as a commentator for ITV, and said that she was braced for some backlash from people who don’t think women should be commentating on football.

“But as long as I’m prepared and give a valued opinion, I expect people to think it’s great that there’s somebody different on the show,” she said. “I think a lot of people in men’s football just want a different voice.”

Listen to Eniola Aluko's guest edit of Woman's Hour here.

Images: Rex Features, Getty

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