Women's football: The world lies at her feet

Eniola helps England qualify for the World Cup - and passes other stiff examinations
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The Independent Football

It was the decorative paper parasols which gave away the theme of the evening as celebrations got under way at the Football Association's Soho Square headquarters last week. China is the destination, the Women's World Cup next September is the occasion and England, glory be, have qualified for the first time in 12 years.

That qualification came two- and-a-half months ago, when a 1-1 draw with the favourites, France, in Rennes ensured England would finish top of Group Five, unbeaten in eight matches having scored 29 goals and conceded two. The Soho Square party, attended by the chief executive, Brian Barwick, and other top FA officials, provided the opportunity to offer belated congratulations and early good wishes for the England squad, who leave for China next month to participate in a four-nation warm-up event.

As Barwick pointed out: "It has been a phenomenal year for the England women's team", an opinion backed by their coach, Hope Powell. "The players have been absolutely fantastic," she said, while adding: "Qualifying for the World Cup is not enough. We want to make an impact come September."

Next month's warm-up trip offers the chance to make that impact, since the opponents are the hosts plus the world's second ranked country, the United States, and the world champions, Germany, who thrashed England 5-1 in a friendly in October. It is difficult to think of a tougher assignment, but it is one welcomed by England's 19-year-old striker Eniola Aluko.

Eniola, a second-year law student at Brunel University whose two goals won the 2006 Cup final for Charlton Ladies against Arsenal, is convinced England will do better on both China trips than many think. "There is a fantastic work ethic throughout the team, and qualifying was testament to that hard work, so if anyone is writing us off or thinking we are just going to make up the numbers I am sure they will be surprised," she said, juggling a glass of white wine and a plate of snacks.

This daughter of the former Brentford and Nigerian international footballer Daniel Aluko, who is now a leading politician back in his homeland, is the essence of England's new exuberance. "Football is actually in my blood, something that was destined to happen," she claims. "Because of my dad it was kind of inevitable that his children would be good at it too."

Her younger brother, Sone, is on Birmingham City's books and has played for England Under-17s, while Eniola joined Birmingham's women's team at 17, the year she won her first full England cap after spells in the Under-19 and Under-21 squads. The fact that she was Young Player of the Year in 2003 made the move to a bigger club inevitable, and she is now in her third season with Charlton.

The combination of study and sport ensures, she says, "there is never a dull moment for me". It was not dull at the European Championships in England last year, when Eniola went to train with England in the morning, sat her history A-level examination by special arrangement at a Blackburn college at lunchtime and was rushed by car to play against Denmark at Ewood Park that same evening. "Quite a pressure time," was Eniola's verdict. "Euro 2005 was my first major tournament and they were also my first big exams."

There has been little easing up since then for the girl who once worked in a shoe shop to help fund her education. "There are a lot of other 19-year-olds at university who study and get drunk every night, but my life is quite different." Apart from rest days on Monday and Saturday, and playing on Sunday, she adds weights and aerobic workouts to skills training every day and studies in the evening. "So it's quite an organised, disciplined life I lead. But I would much rather have that than not knowing where I am going." Where she hopes to go after university and football is to a career as a sports solicitor.

Then there is the prospect of her first - and then second - visit to China. "I am one who really admires other cultures and different places. I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, whether through football or with my family, but China is somewhere I have always wanted to go."

Eniola is frank about her skills and perceived shortcomings. "My speed is an asset and my goals-to-game ratio is getting better. I think I also have good passing ability, something a striker doesn't always have, but I take pride in setting other people up as well. One thing I need to work on is my heading, though I have quite a spring on me.

"I am also getting stronger through my conditioning work, because women's football is a physical game. When you've got pace like me, they just want to chop you down, but that's something I'm prepared for."

As for the women's game making more of an impact, Eniola feels much depends on how well England fare at the World Cup from 10-30 September next year. "We have done so well to qualify, it looks like a bright future. There is a national resonance, a pride, that comes with a World Cup, and I am sure every person will be keen to see how we get on."

Just how keen will be shown if our women do well. Should that happen, champagne bottles will be opening up along with the paper parasols.

Also Starring: Six of the best of the rest

Nicole Cooke Cycling

The 23-year-old Welsh woman from Wick was named Queen of the Road in 2006. No British man or woman had been in the top 20 of the world road- race rankings before. The 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, she reclaimed the individual World Cup crown this year, bringing Univega the team title, and won La Grande Boucle, the women's Tour de France, and the Magali Pache, her greatest time-trial success.

Anna Hemmings Canoeing

Hemmings won the European Championship in 1997, aged 20; after defending her crown two years later, she won the world event to become the youngest to win both titles and the only British woman to do so. Then she was told she might never race again when she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In a remarkable return, the 28-year-old from Walton-upon-Thames won the world and European titles again, two years in a row.

Helena Lucas Sailing

Lucas was nominated for the World Sailor of the Year Award for both Paralympic and Olympic sailing. She started with the 2.4mR, one of three Paralympic events, in 2004 after not being chosen in the 470 at the Athens Games. With her new-found knowledge of keelboats, the 31-year-old took over the Yngling of Shirley Robertson in August at an Olympic Test event in China, and won a silver medal at her first attempt in the class.

Kiran Matharu Golf

The 17-year-old from Leeds is a vibrant role model for young Asian women in sport. She won the Faldo Series in 2004 by a record 11 shots - against boys up to the age of 20 - then again the following year, by six shots. She became the English Ladies Amateur Champion in May, was selected for the Curtis Cup team in July - as the youngest player in both teams - and came 15th in her first professional event at the Wales Championship.

Zara Phillips Equestrianism

Surprisingly named as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, the 25-year-old daughter of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips was crowned World Three-Day Eventing champion after claiming individual gold on Toytown at the World Equestrian Games in August. The pair also won individual and team gold at the European Eventing Champion-ships last year, making her only the third rider to hold both titles at the same time.

Shelley Rudman Skeleton bob

Rudman, a supply teacher, won the silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Turin in February - Britain's only medal of the Games - even though there is no proper track in Britain and her neighbours had to raise the money to pay for a sled. The 25-year-old from Pewsey, Wiltshire, won gold the previous year at the World University Games and came second at the European Championships. She now receives funding from UK Sport.

Andrew Tong