‘I’ll be flying’: England’s Funmi Fadoju aiming high at Netball World Cup

When Funmi Fadoju jumps, the law of gravity seems, for a brief spell, to be suspended. If you didn’t know better, you would be tempted to check the soles of her trainers for some kind of secret spring technology. Or maybe a booster jet.

Witness her first match against Australia, the world champions, last autumn, and the increasingly frustrated look on the face of Donnell Wallam. At 6ft 2in (1.88m), Australia’s goal shooter stood almost half a foot taller than the England goal defence who was marking her. And yet passes that should have gone far above Fadoju were making into her hands.

The 20-year-old from east London beams when recollecting that game. “That was the best moment of my life,” she says. “I was still new. I came on at half-time and everyone was like: ‘Oh God, who is this girl?’”

The Australian commentators were not immune to the excitement – “How did she get that?” – as Fadoju showed the global home of netballing excellence something it had never seen before.

England kick off their World Cup campaign in South Africa on Friday still on the hunt for their first title. Fadoju is their new airborne weapon, joining a defensive team that includes Layla Guscoth and Fran Williams.

“I’m coming off a bench where people are good at lots of different things,” says Fadoju, grinning. “Some are good in the air, some are good on the ground, some are good with the flat balls. That’s to our advantage – we’ll be challenging the opposition in different ways.”

Fadoju is the least experienced of the bunch, but she is likely to be the most eye-catching. Since she made her debut against Uganda last October she has played 13 games and made significant contributions in all of them. Her enthusiasm is irresistible – she is quick to smile, faster to laugh and bubbles with delight at her newfound profession.

She has quickly become one of the most popular players in the Superleague and videos of her leaping-salmon performances for London Pulse are shared among the sport’s fanbase.

Then there is the manoeuvre she has developed with England’s legendary goalkeeper, Geva Mentor. It doesn’t have a name, so let’s call it the Wonder Woman – because if you’ve seen Diana Prince boosted into the air by one of her fellow Amazons, you’ve got the gist. Think of a lineout lift in rugby union, with added acrobatic art. “Geva loves to do it,” says Fadoju. “She’s so strong she can throw me into the air and I’ll be flying. It’s really difficult for shooters to shoot over that.”

Only a couple of years ago, the biomedical student had pictures of her netballing idol on her bedroom wall. When she joined the squad last year, she was terrified to discover she was to be her roommate: Mentor has, after all, been playing for England longer than Fadoju has been alive. Now they watch Love Island together and Mentor has lived up to her name, helping Fadoju with her game on and off court: “I can go to her with anything.”

Funmi Fadoju (centre) springs into action for England. Photograph: Morgan Harlow

Their relationship is emblematic of an England team whose dressing‑room culture is one of its greatest strengths. “Everyone in the team is so chilled, so supportive, so welcoming,” says Fadoju. “They all take time out of their lives to look out for each other.”

And how does she fit in? “I’m there just to make everyone laugh,” she says, guffawing. “I’ll run into a pole to make your day better.” Just to prove her point she takes out her phone and reveals a video of her doing a pratfall during a team-bonding game the day before.

Fadoju’s winning personality stems at least partly from her attitude of gratitude for where she is today. She was at primary school in Dagenham when she first encountered netball, introduced by a PE teacher who let her watch the older girls play: “It looked so cool, the footwork and pivoting.” She persuaded her friends to take up playing, too – it’s easy to picture a charismatic nine-year-old Fadoju at the centre of things – but it was at 13 she discovered her real talent.

Fadoju had gone to her first county trial as a goal attack and despite her innate athleticism the results were not a success: “I was always a bouncy, energetic person, but not the best at shooting.” She resisted her coach’s attempt to move her to goal defence (“Who wants to go from being a princess to working hard?”) before relenting. “The first time I ever jumped for the ball I was like: ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

skip past newsletter promotion

Fadoju is quick to enumerate the efforts of her family and wider community to support her passion for the game. Her school bought her the first pair of netball-appropriate trainers she owned and her sister, Temitope – who is a year older than Fadoju – assiduously accompanied her to training to make sure she was safe. Even today, Temitope organises most of Fadoju’s logistics: “She wants to be my manager. Well, she is already, really, an unpaid one. I need to do well so I can pay her back.”

The travel up and down the country was expensive, with no expectation of payback in the form of a professional career. Fadoju’s mother, a health visitor, asked: “Are you sure you want to do this?” but still drove her daughter to games, working on her laptop from the stands and sometimes even the car park. Her father, meanwhile, evolved into a netball geek who watched her matches on YouTube if he missed them live and now knows which players are moving between clubs before she does.

There are still games of table tennis with her ultra-competitive dad that go on for hours (“It’s probably helpful for reflexes”) and at weekends Fadoju loves to spend time back at her home church. The services are long enough that she can nip out, play a game at her local club and be back while everyone’s still singing. She also volunteers at the food bank, which is where any player-of-the-match cheques she acquires end up.

In between biomedicine studies at Queen Mary University of London, she has been putting in a lot of time in the gym in preparation for likely highly physical encounters at the World Cup. “Ive always been quite an off-body defender but I’ve realised once you get to international stages that doesn’t always work.

“I’ve been growing muscle in my upper body to give it back to some shooters, put a bit more pressure on them to drop or fumble the ball.”

She recognises Jamaica’s Jhaniele Fowler and New Zealand’s Grace Nweke will be some of the tallest and toughest opposition she’ll face – “but they’re not unbeatable,” she says.

Fadoju hopes that being relatively new to international competition she, too, will present a novel challenge. England’s best finish at a World Cup remains as runners-up, in 1975, and they are ranked third behind Australia and New Zealand. But Fadoju believes this crop of players, with the experienced duo Mentor and Jade Clarke holding 367 caps between them, can provide the inspiration to take England further than they have gone before.

“They’re so happy and successful as women. You look at them and think: ‘Wow, this is what we can all aim for.’ They’re showing me what my future can be.”

Read More

Emma John