This former Lioness says women’s football has a toxic culture of bullying

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Moya Crockett
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The Football Association has been accused of turning a blind eye to a culture of bullying and racism within women’s football, and for paying ‘hush money’ to prevent one of its former star players speaking out.

Eniola “Eni” Aluko is a forward for Chelsea Ladies football club, and played for the England women’s team until resigning in May 2016. This week, she gave an explosive interview in which she alleged that her former manager had bullied her and used racist language about her and another player.

Aluko filed a formal complaint against Mark Sampson – the head of the England women’s team – in 2016, claiming that he used racially derogatory language about her and another player. Her complaint also levelled several accusations of bullying at Sampson that were not related to race.

An internal investigation by the FA and a later independent inquiry cleared Sampson of any wrongdoing, although it was recommended that he improve his communication skills. However, it has now been revealed that Aluko was paid around £80,000 by the FA to sign a confidentiality agreement ahead of this summer’s Euro 2017 tournament – raising questions about whether the FA wanted to cover up the inquiry.

The FA claims that the only purpose of the agreement was to “avoid disruption”, and that Aluko was always free to discuss the investigation, something she disputes. But she has now gained consent to tell her side of the story, and discussed Sampson’s alleged behaviour in an interview with the Guardian.

Aluko, who is also a qualified lawyer, said that Sampson made a racist joke about her family in November 2014, shortly before the England women’s team played Germany at Wembley.

“He asked me if I had anyone who would be there [at the match] and I said I had family coming over from Nigeria,” she said.

Aluko said that Sampson responded: “‘Oh. Nigeria? Make sure they don’t bring Ebola with them.’”

The footballer was born in Nigeria but moved to Birmingham with her family when she was a baby, and said that she was unsure of how to react to her manager’s “joke”.

“I remember laughing but in a very nervous way,” she said. “I went back to my room and I was really upset.”

The FA knew about Sampson’s “joke” but chose to ignore it, claimed Aluko, despite the fact that she had previously raised concerns about the coach using racially loaded language. She had gone to the organisation after a mixed race player told her that Sampson suggested she had a criminal past.

The unnamed footballer claimed that while she was in a meeting with Sampson, the coach asked her: “Haven’t you been arrested before then, four times isn’t it?” Both Aluko and the player believed that this comment was related to the colour of her skin, and the fact that she is from South London.

Sampson was cleared of any wrongdoing in two inquiries. However, Aluko describes those decisions as a “farce”, given that the mixed race player was not interviewed for either investigation.

Aluko was dropped from the England women’s team shortly after filing a report about her experiences with the FA. Sampson said the reason was her “unlioness behaviour”, citing her attitude and behaviour, and the FA has said that Aluko’s report did not prompt Sampson to cut her from the team. However, Aluko said that she sees Sampson’s decision to end her 11-year England career as “retaliation”.

“On the pitch there are clear punishments when it comes to issues involving race. Behind closed doors, we don’t know the FA processes,” Aluko said, adding that she had witnessed other black or mixed race players get frozen out after talking about racism.

“We do know [the mixed-race player] has not been picked since this incident. Lianne Sanderson hasn’t been picked since she complained about why her 50th cap was forgotten on the same trip that the 100th cap of a white player was remembered.”

Aluko cited Anita Asante and Danielle Carter as two other examples of women who “disappeared without trace” from professional football despite having stellar records.

“There are lots of national teams that are very white, not just England, and I’d hate to say we should be picked because we’re black or mixed race,” she said. “But are we all bad characters? Are we all terrible players?

“That’s the question I think people need to be asking because a pattern is emerging here, as clear as day, and my belief is that it’s a culture.”

Images: Getty Images / Rex Features