By Halimat Shode
The Black Muslim Times UK spoke with Aishah Bolaji, a former professional footballer for Chelsea’s women’s football team. She talked about her time there and the role of fitness in her life.
Asalamu Alaikum sister thanks so much for speaking with us! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Salam alaikum, Thank you so much for having me and allowing me to be able use this opportunity to talk about my football career and my current passion for health and fitness. my name is Aishah Bolaji. I’m from Nigeria and was born and raised here in the uk. I studied sports and exercise Rehabilitation at Middlesex university. I’m currently working full time as a rehab advisor, I’m also a sports therapist for my brother’s football agency (Strive sports management). I have a strong passion for health and fitness which has been a strong part of my lifestyle for some time now.
What inspired you to play professional football?
I started playing football at the age of 9/10 years of age, I’ve always aimed to strive to get to the highest level possible. I wouldn’t say I played at a ‘’professional ‘’ level consistently, but alhamdulilah being able to spend 5 years of my football career at Chelsea football club was an amazing experience I thank Allah for. I would say having an older brother was definitely part of how I started playing football as we would play football in the living room all the time and that’s really where it all began. I was part of my primary school football team, I represented my region at one point and also all through to secondary school.
Another massive inspiration was the fact that I was a Muslim female playing football, due to this I was determined to go as far as possible to represent in a positive way. When I played for Hampstead u16s my coach at the time was a female footballer Kirsty Pealing who was playing for Arsenal FC at the time. When I realised that there were female clubs such as arsenal, Chelsea, Charlton etc that inspired me a lot.
Were there any lifestyle adjustments to make as a professional footballer?
From when I started paying football, it always had an impact on my lifestyle due to me having to train, play matches and tournaments here and there which involved a lot of time and travelling. At the time when I was playing football, it was always the main priority for me but I didn’t let that effect my other priorities. This actually worked to my favour as this positively forced me to be much more organised so I could juggle my career with my lifestyle and alhamdulilah when I look back at everything I just have to be grateful.
During my College period I was fortunate to be able to combine both learning and playing football at Kingston college which had a partnership with Chelsea FC, we would train 3 times a week and have lessons straight after and also have matches once a week against other academies throughout the country. When I was at university there were some occasions I would have to leave my lectures early in order to get to training on time. I always made sure I had time for family, friends, education and football as these were all key to me.
(Aishah with her team)
During your time as a player, what did you think of the football industry?
Women’s football has grown a lot and is still currently growing. The main difficulty that Women’s football face is the recognition. When I first started playing football I played a few matches for a boys team as there were hardly any female teams at the time that were around. I felt that the footballing industry got better the higher the level you played at and also the team/Club you were with. Playing for Chelsea academy, Chelsea Reserves and Chelsea first team on a few occasions, we were fortunate to be able to train/play in a professional and updated environment . One thing I know is you can never compare women and men’s football, but I feel as females we still need to be respected in some aspects of the footballing world and recognition is one of the main factors that lack in the Women’s game. I’m sure other players that were in my shoe will agree with me saying there’s still some progression needed.
Did you face any obstacles as a female professional footballer?
As you all know as footballers the kit consist of shorts, socks and tops which can be short sleeves at times. Due to my faith I had to be aware with how I wore my clothing and different ways that I could make sure that my deen came first, as well as making sure I was represented in the right way. I would always wear leggings under my shorts so my legs were not exposed and try as much to wear an under top if the shirts were too short, I always wanted to make sure I still looked professional with my kit which is why I made sure my leggings were coloured according to the kit and my under top at times. The good thing is I always had support from my team mates and coaches as they knew I was Muslim which they respected ,but I made sure this was not a barrier that would stop me playing the sport that I loved so much at the time.
Another vital factor was the fact that I’ve always had my whole family and close friends supporting me from the beginning I started playing football in primary school. Some Muslim females today that have the potential to play football at a decent level or are interested in the game are discouraged due to the lack of support from family and also not having other Muslim females to look up to as an encouragement/inspiration. A great example today is Ibtihaj Muhammad even though she does not play football, she is an inspiration for us Muslim females. I’ve started following her on social networks for some time now and MashAllah she is a positive representative as she shows she can play her sport and practise her religion. She is also competing in the Olympics this year in Rio (Woop woop go sis!)
What is the role of fitness in your life now, compared to when you were a player?
Fitness has a major role in my life now, when I was a footballer I actually used to be one of the very few players that loved doing the fitness drills during training *Covers face*. Because I was training and playing matches most of the time during the week there was hardly any time to go to the gym or go out to the park to do my own fitness drills .when I was in Chelsea academy as part of our training programme we had to have a gym session once a week doing cardio, strength and power exercises which had a major benefit on our individual performance. I also remember going to my local regents park and my brother took me for one of my very first park workouts around the time I just joined my first proper football team.That day my brother really showed me what fitness was all about and it weren’t going to be a walk in the park (No pun intended) *Cries*. So now I’m not playing football I have more time to go to the gym or do my workouts in the park or at home. I believe a healthy lifestyle is important, we only have one body so why not cherish and look after what Allah has blessed us with. I eat clean most of the times, I have my cheat days at times of course, I’m human at the end of the day. People say healthy eating can be expensive at times, but if you meal prep most stuff, you will save a lot.
Do you have advice for other women and Muslim sisters that hope to play professional football?
I would say it’s all about your intention with anything you want to pursue in life, I would advise any female that’s hoping to play football to keep positive and work as hard as you can to reach the level you are aiming for. If you Intend to do good then good will come your way. I would also say surround yourself with individuals that encourage you to do good and support the talent that God has given you. I’ll leave you with my personal quote that I made a few years ago, ‘’Prayer + Hard work = Success’’.
Many thanks for speaking with us Aishah !
(Pictures courtesy of Aishah Bolaji)