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2019 Women's World Cup

The complex story of Ada Hegerberg, a star at peace with taking a stand

Photo Copyright Hannah di Lorenzo for The Equalizer

“Do you know how to twerk?” The smile slipped from Ada Hegerberg’s face as soon as the words left Martin Solveig’s mouth. The inaugural winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or gave a curt, “non” (“no”) as she turned to leave, her historic moment stolen by a thoughtless French DJ.

A clip of the brief interchange quickly went viral, six words destined to follow Hegerberg for the foreseeable future, the rightful outrage at the comment overshadowing the star’s triumph on the pitch.

At 23 years old, there is no question that Ada Martine Stolsmo Hegerberg is one of the best currently playing soccer in the world, a superstar of the level of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but one who remains relatively unknown to swathes of the populous. Although many could debate her Ballon d’Or win, asking whether or not she has been the best of the best in this calendar year, she remains a spectacularly talented player, humble to the last and an asset to any team.

She is much more than this viral moment.

Hegerberg’s story starts in the small Norwegian town of Sunndalsøra, where she grew up in a footballing family, coaxed into the sport by older sister, Andrine. The youngest Hegerberg took to the sport like the proverbial duck to water. A move to Oppegård in 2007 saw both sisters take the next step up the ladder, with both going on to make their Toppserien (the top division of women’s football in Norway) debuts for Kolbotn. Still just 16 years old, Hegerberg turned heads whenever she took to the pitch and the accolades soon followed. League titles, cup wins, three straight Champions League crowns with Lyon and individual honors at every turn, there are few players – especially so young – who can boast such an overflowing trophy cabinet, the Ballon d’Or the latest piece of bling in her collection.

“I know what I want and know my values and therefore it’s easy to take hard choices when you know what the ambitions are and what values you stand for, so it’s all about staying true to yourself, be yourself.” – Ada Hegerberg

Hegerberg has been on an upward trajectory in the club game since leaving Norway at 18. With a philosophy much aligned to Lyon’s relentless approach, the attacker seems almost like she was born to play for the five-time UEFA Women’s Champions League winners. As of this writing, she has scored 237 career professional goals in 233 appearances. She’s ruthless on the pitch — a pure finisher in the box — and known to extend training sessions to further practice her finishing. Her 6-foot frame and trademark blond hair braid make her hard to miss.

Jean-Michel Aulas may have come under fire with his public courting of Alex Morgan in 2016, but the Lyon president remains a shrewd businessman who knows exactly what he’s doing. For Aulas, there is no difference between men’s and women’s soccer and although Hegerberg’s male counterparts at Lyon earn far more than her and her teammates, Lyon is one of the teams that sets the standards for women’s soccer around the world. Given some of the best conditions to train in, Lyon players to devote themselves to the sport and unlock their potential.

Hegerberg’s off-field values define her decision-making; that’s why the first-ever women’s Ballon d’Or winner hasn’t played for her country in over a year, and why — as of now — she won’t be at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Following Norway’s dismal run at Euro 2017 that saw the six-time finalists knocked out at the group stage (without a point or goal to their names) Hegerberg announced her indefinite international hiatus. Some felt Hegerberg was simply throwing a tantrum following Norway’s worst-ever showing at a European Championship, but the reality was much deeper-rooted.

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Beslutningen om å ta en pause fra landslaget har vært vanskelig, men den er veloverveid. Beslutningen er ikke bare en konsekvens av årets EM, men er basert på mine erfaringer med landslagene over lang tid. Jeg vil framover bruke all energi i Lyon, – det er der jeg nå kan videreutvikle meg som spiller.
Jeg har orientert min nærmeste leder Martin Sjøgren og ledelsen i NFF om beslutningen og begrunnelsen for denne. Det er samtidig viktig å understreke at begrunnelsen for min beslutning i stor grad ligger utenfor Sjøgrens treneransvar.
Skal landslaget oppnå de målsettinger og resultater landslagsledelsen har satt seg kreves det etter min oppfatning forbedringer på flere områder, både i planleggingsarbeidet, i gjennomføringsfasen og i oppfølgingen. I tillegg er det mye å gå på i forhold til kommunikasjon og dialog. Jeg mener jeg på en konstruktiv måte har forsøkt å påvirke på de områdene der jeg kan ha en stemme. Landslagsledelsen kjenner mine synspunkter og jeg kommer ikke til å utdype dette nærmere i mediene.
Jeg har følt stolthet ved å spille på landslaget, men slik situasjonen er har jeg ikke motivasjon til å fortsette nå.
Jeg ønsker mine landslagskollegaer alt godt og gode resultater i kvalifiseringskampene framover.

A post shared by Ada Stolsmo Hegerberg (@ahegerberg) on

Unhappy with the status quo in Norway for some time, the Euros were simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Norwegian Football Federation’s poster girl no longer able to keep pulling on the familiar red shirt. While Hegerberg’s reasoning is complex, there were two key points that can be easily explained (or at least, translated). The first refers to “takhøyde”, which Google unhelpfully suggests means “ceilings” or “headroom,” but refers to the greater sense of being able to express oneself. Hegerberg has painted a picture of a stifled team, a group without individuality and one which begrudges loud voices. This is possibly a larger reflection of Norwegian culture, the archetype for the country largely operating under almost British stiff upper-lip attitude: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it and even if it is broke, don’t make a fuss. Hegerberg however, is happy to be outspoken, her move to France nurturing her natural boldness.

She can’t just not “have a voice” while in Norway’s training camps. The attacker has stated that she usually returns to her club feeling like a worse player for her time with the national team.

An underperforming player in an underperforming team, there was little about Hegerberg’s performances at the 2017 European Championship that suggested she was a world-class player. While the team, under coach Martin Sjögren, has attempted to forge a new path after years of confusion and stagnation, Hegerberg continued to look at odds with the system.

So, in August last year, when Sjögren began to prepare for World Cup qualification, Hegerberg released her statement. The fallout was instant; her international teammates spoke of their confusion as some in the NFF lashed out at the young attacker.

After the dust settled, Hegerberg took to the pitches in France revitalized and renewed, the weight visibly lifted from her shoulders. She had the room and freedom to be the best player she could be at Lyon. She has returned to her sumptuous best for the French champions, setting new records each season, once more firing on all cylinders.

MORE: Why the Dutch need an overhaul to contend at the World Cup

(Joerdeli Photography)

However, for Hegerberg, there has been no clean break. Fresh off the pitch in Kiev after her third Champions League triumph this spring, she was fending off questions about whether or not she’d be returning to the Norway squad. As soon as Norway sealed their spot in the World Cup, Hegerberg was again the topic of conversation. Would she be returning to the fold? Would the team accept her back? Her position, had not changed and she again wished the team well in their endeavors.

The rift between Hegerberg and the team has become so great that she has removed her international teammates, who she has spent so much time playing alongside, from her Facebook and Instagram.

Predictably, after Hegerberg’s Ballon d’Or win, the question of her presence at next summer’s World Cup was posed again. Hegerberg, still the affable, small-town girl who is well versed in dealing with media since her teenage years,

“I know what I want and know my values and therefore it’s easy to take hard choices when you know what the ambitions are and what values you stand for, so it’s all about staying true to yourself, be yourself,” she said in the fallout. The line echoed what she said in her acceptance speech, asking young girls to be true to themselves.

There may yet be a new chapter in the story. Installed as the director of elite football in the NFF three months ago, Lise Klaveness — a former teammate of Hegerberg — is planning to sit down with the striker in Lyon to see if anything can be done about the impasse. A former Norwegian international herself, Klaveness is familiar with the negative culture that has historically hung around the team, having herself opted to decline call-ups between 2007 and 2009. Although Klaveness’ issues were with former coach, Bjarne Berntsen, she wasn’t the only player who refused the call of the national team in 2008; five players from Røa all refused to turn out, a lack of takhøyde being the reason. Although Berntsen is long gone and Sjögren is his fourth successor, the issues behind the scenes refuse to change with the management.

Whether or not Klaveness can find a solution to fix the problems Hegerberg has with the set-up remains to be seen. Klaveness noted in her recent comments that she is unclear on what, exactly, Hegerberg still has problems with regarding the federation. Norway was seen to the outside world as a leader in equality when the federation in late 2017 became the first in the world to grant equal pay to its men’s and women’s national teams. Hegerberg has said that money is not the issue. It also seems unlikely her international teammates would welcome Hegerberg back with open arms.

Having signed a new deal with Lyon, reportedly making her the best-paid female footballer in the world, Hegerberg remains focused on her club soccer and using her platform to highlight the disparity in the sport that clearly weighs heavy on her. Even in her native Norway, where there is more equality between the sexes, Hegerberg sees a lack of respect for women’s soccer and feels that the NFF can do more to help grow the game. While soccer remains the biggest sport in Norway (with the English Premier League the pinnacle for many Norwegians), Hegerberg feels that opportunities are not available for young girls trying to get into the game.

Living out her dream, following her passion, Hegerberg’s Ballon d’Or acceptance speech was delivered in a mix of French and English, the striker opting to switch to a more commonly spoken language to deliver a simple message: “I would like to end this speech with some words to young girls all over the world, please, believe in yourself.”

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