Her Ballon d'Or win confirmed the Norwegian as the best player in the world, but a long-running dispute with the national team means she won't be participating on the biggest stage
16 January ~ Ada Hegerberg was already a star in the women’s football world, not least in her native Norway as well as France, where she plays her domestic football for five-time Champions League winners Lyon. Now she has been catapulted into the public eye following her inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin win in December.
The majority of the coverage has been split between the inappropriate comments made by the presenter, DJ Martin Solveig, on stage and the Norwegian striker’s superlative goalscoring records. Yet, with the women’s World Cup just around the corner, few English-language outlets have explained why Hegerberg won’t be on the pitch next summer. Displeased with the culture in the national team, she has opted not to be selected since the summer of 2017, citing a lack of takhoyde (approximately “room to express oneself”), as well as the lack of respect shown by the Norges Fotballforbund (NFF) towards women’s football. Although the only player in the current crop declining call-ups, Hegerberg’s complaints are not new. Ten years ago five Norwegian title-winners turned down the call of the national team due to the absence of takhoyde and the management of then coach Bjarne Berntsen.
Although Berntsen has long since left the team, with three managers taking charge before current boss Martin Sjogren, the culture seems to persist around the side. After Hegerberg’s initial announcement last August, NRK commentator Tom Nordlie summarised the issue wonderfully by saying: “In Norway, we all like that everyone should drink milk and eat crackers and be the same.”
For large areas of the country, there is almost a “stiff upper lip” culture – Norwegians are brought up not to be outspoken, to nod, smile politely and not rattle any cages. Hegerberg, however, was raised with a strong sense of self and has never been shy to speak out, saying that she “can’t have a voice” in the national team and usually returned to Lyon feeling like a worse player after representing her country.
For Hegerberg, it’s not just about how she feels within the team but the indifference from the NFF regarding women’s football. A former world leader, Norway has been overtaken as other nations have invested and grown the sport in recent years. Able to leave the Toppserien (top tier of women’s football in Norway) for the German Frauen-Bundesliga when she was still a teen before moving down to Lyon, Hegerberg has experienced some of the best facilities women’s football has to offer.
The Norwegian federation made history last year when the men’s team willingly took a pay cut to ensure the women’s team made the same amount as them, when before they earned over twice as much. Yet when Daniel Kjorberg Siraj, boss of housing company OBOS, approached the NFF about investing in Toppserien, he was told by someone high up that women’s football has “no commercial value”. When the clubs themselves were given the power to arrange their own sponsorships, previously handled by the NFF, they quickly brokered a deal that will see OBOS providing 60 million NOK (£5.5m) over five years. Part of the investment will be put towards the clubs while the rest will go into projects to increase public interest and grow professionalism, something the NFF seemed reticent to have a hand in.
For Hegerberg, who has looked re-energised since stepping back from international duty, there has been no clean break. The media have naturally wanted to know more of her reasoning, at every turn. Norway qualify for the World Cup: “Will Ada return to the team?” Hegerberg wins the Champions League: “What an achievement… have you changed your mind about representing Norway?” The first female Ballon d’Or winner has remained cordial throughout, stating that her position has not changed and, while she wishes the team well, there is no place for her in the side.
The current members of the national team have also been frustrated with the constant questions, having overcome Euro 2017 winners Holland to book their spot at the World Cup. Surprised that Hegerberg has even removed former international team-mates from her social media, the players have said they would be unlikely to welcome her back without a heartfelt apology. For now at least the 23-year-old wants nothing more than to focus on her club football, the book seemingly closed on her international career. Sophie Lawson