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Why exactly is the best female footballer in the world not playing at the World Cup?

Norway’s Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg is refusing to play.

IMAGINE PORTUGAL PLAYING at the World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo, or Argentina Messi-less. A World Cup without the best of the best.

Well, that’s the situation with Norway and the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Imago 20190518 Ada Hegerberg wrapped in the Norwegian flag after steering Lyon to recent Champions League glory. Source: Imago/PA Images

You’ve surely heard the name Ada Hegerberg mentioned once or twice over the past few months.

Hegerberg made history in December 2018 when she was crowned the first-ever women’s Ballon D’Or winner. The Lyon striker’s greatness was recognised accordingly on the world’s biggest stage, rewarded for her outstanding efforts and prolific goal-scoring with the deserved, official title of the world’s best female footballer.

But even those with little to no knowledge of football — male or female — whatsoever came across Hegerberg’s name for all the wrong reasons after the awards ceremony.

French DJ Martin Solveig asked the 23-year-old if she she knew how to ‘twerk’ on stage, completely overshadowing the moment of history.

Last December’s twerking controversy wasn’t the first sexism row the star has been at the centre of however.

For the purpose of this explainer though, we’ll put all else — including her stunning club form with Lyon — aside to focus on her international career, why she hasn’t represented Norway since Euro 2017, and why she’s boycotting the upcoming World Cup in France.

***

Just to give you a slight idea of how instrumental she had been: before her leave of absence, Hegerberg scored 38 goals in 66 appearances for her country, and was named Norwegian Sportsperson of the Year in 2016 – the first soccer player to win since 1981.

But Norway endured a disastrous Euro 2017, losing all three of their group matches to the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, and failing to score a single goal throughout. Afterwards, Hegerberg opted to take a break from international football.

She walked away from the set-up after growing increasingly frustrated with the situation there and what she labelled as a “lack of respect” for female players in Norway. 

She slammed the door shut then, and continues her stand for gender equality to this day.

Hegerberg’s decision in the summer of 2017 to stop playing for the national team was a protest against the Norwegian Football Federation [NFF] for how it treats the women’s league. Equal working conditions and an increased overall support for the women’s programme was her wish. What Hegerberg was experiencing at Lyon, she wanted in the international set-up.

Not long afterwards, the national team collectively stood up for parity with their male counterparts — and the NFF and the country’s players’ association [NISO] signed a historic agreement on equal pay.

WWCup World Cup Preview Soccer With the Ballon d'Or award. Source: AP/PA Images

The agreement confirmed that the country’s male and female players would receive the same amount money — €639,000 per year per team — for representing their nation. To enable parity, the men agreed to give up a pot of €73,000 in marketing and commercial payments.

“It’s not always about the money,” Hegerberg said in comments reported by CNN.

“It’s about preparing, taking action, professionality; really clear points I’ve put quite directly to them when I made the decision.

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.

As well as the historic equal pay agreement, the NFF also appointed a female sporting director, former international Lise Klaveness. She splits her time equally between the men’s and women’s national teams.

Klaveness believes that Norway invests more money in the women’s game than most other federations. But again, it’s about more than that for Hegerberg.

“A lot of things need to be done to make the conditions better for women who play football,” she stressed to The Associated Press last year.

It’s the general disregard for women’s football in the country that the 23-year-old finds fault with. The uneven pace of progress and strategy in the game is at the centre of her frustrations.

So, this is why we didn’t see Hegerberg when Norway came to Ireland for their World Cup qualifier last June. Tallaght Stadium hosted the first leg which Colin Bell’s Girls In Green lost 2-0, before both sides returned to Stavanger four days later and the curtain came down on Ireland’s bid to reach a first-ever major tournament.

Norway went in as top seeds, and finished top of Group 3 to qualify for the finals in France along with the Netherlands — who made it through further play-offs.

It was thought that qualification for the World Cup wouldn’t even bring Hegerberg back into the set-up, and that was confirmed when Norway announced their squad on 2 May.

Annike Krahn, Ada Hegerberg In action for Norway in 2015. Source: Sean Kilpatrick

“We tried to solve it, we had meetings, but she decided not to play,” coach Martin Sjogren told the BBC World Service in February in sharing it was unlikely she would feature.

“As a coach, you need to focus on the players who want to be a part of the team and Ada doesn’t. We respect that, and we have been working hard with the other players and they have been doing a great job.”

Klavness also noted that the Lyon star “cannot be at her best in this system”. She doesn’t want the dispute with Hegerberg to leave a cloud over the side and their upcoming tilt, but is eager to stress she has “not given up” on Hegerberg.

The player herself hasn’t gone into any specific detail as to why she rejected the latest chance to return, but stated to AFP — in confirming her original choice:

The decision was taken a long time before we knew the World Cup was going to be in France. Sometimes you need to make difficult choices.

“This decision is one of them and I am calm about it because it was important in order to be able to keep playing at the top level.”

She added elsewhere: “The management knows my views, and I will not elaborate on this in the media. I have felt pride in playing for the national team, but as the situation is, I have no motivation to continue.”

“It’s about attitude and respect,” she echoed her sentiments to BBC. “We’re talking about young girls getting the same opportunity as boys – giving them the same opportunity to dream. If you can change attitudes in the beginning, things will change.

“The men in the suits can’t ignore that. They are going to understand one day. They are going to understand that this is about society and it’s about modern football.”

As she told ESPN most recently: “It’s impossible to play football in a world among men and not fight for equality. We’re all feminists.

Imago 20180524 Celebrating a Lyon goal. Source: Imago/PA Images

Playing football can be damn harsh, but every day is a fight for equality. That’s a fact. We’ve made it here [in Lyon] because you’ve got one man at the top believing in us. But it’s still a long, long way to go.”

Her elder sister, PSG’s Andrine Hegerberg, is also absent from the nation’s 23-strong squad, but it’s thought that is unrelated to Ada’s refusal to compete.

Excitement is well and truly building for the tournament, with a little over two days to go until hosts France open it against South Korea at the Parc des Princes.

Norway kick off their campaign against Nigeria in Reims the following day, and while the best players in the world will be on our TV screens and dominating headlines for the next month or so, the one that’s absent is the entire pre-tournament talk.

While it’s mainly others making their opinions heard, Brazil sensation Marta spoke out about Hegerberg’s snub to OmniSport last week.

“This was the way she found to protest but in my opinion this must be made collectively,” the Orlando Pride star said.

“If I’m alone I can’t change the world, I need all of you, mainly my fellow players so that things can evolve.

When I talk about gender equality, I think that all women that can talk about it, they are allowed to talk also. What I mean is that Ada is paying a price of not playing for her country but this fight of hers is a fight of all of us. 

“She doesn’t have to carry this responsibility alone. It was a very strong attitude. For me to do this, I’d need to have my fellow players support as it has already happened here in the US, with female athletes together to fight for things to get better in many ways. That’s it.”

Yes, she’ll be missed. But the show must go on without Ada Hegerberg.

And what a show it’s shaping up to be.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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