The 2019 Women’s World Cup: The Great Ada Hegerberg Mystery

If there’s one story that has seeped into the public consciousness in the build-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup finals in France it’s been that of Ada Hegerberg, arguably the finest female footballer on the planet, and her absence from a Norwegian team that could desperately do with her myriad talents this summer. Hegerberg’s relative silence on the matter, however, fell foul of the law of unintended consequences, and she was found herself having to speak more openly about her reasons for having decided to quit the national team two years ago, at just twenty-two years of age.

The numbers speak for themselves. Two hundred and fifty-five goals in two hundred and fifty-four games throughout her career. Five French domestic titles in Division 1 Feminine. Four times winner of the Coupe de France. Four times winner of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Inaugural winner of the Ballon d’Or Féminin last year and twice winner of the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. She is the jewel in the crown that is the Olympique Lyonnais team, the most successful and dominant football team in the world. Ada Hegerberg turns twenty-four years old next month.

There is, however, already something notable about Hegerberg’s roll of honour. There are no international honours on it and, whilst she quit the national team a couple of years ago, she made her debut at the age of sixteen and played sixty-eight times for Norway before her retirement. Norway, however, are no longer the force in women’s international football that they used to be. They won the second Women’s World Cup in the year that Hegerberg was born, having been runners-up in the inaugural tournament, four years earlier. After winning the Olympic gold medal in 2000, however, the Norway team fell into relative decline.

There have been brief sparks of life since then, reaching the finals of the UEFA Women’s Championship in both 2005 and 2013, but the team has also failed to reach three of the last four consecutive Olympic tournaments, it has failed to get past the round of sixteen of the World Cup since 2007, and hasn’t won the Algarve Cup, the invitational tournament which they called their own in the mid-1990s, since 1999. Furthermore, Hegerberg’s retirement wouldn’t be the first time that there has been a degree of fractiousness within the Norway squad. After the 2008 Olympic Games, for example, five players refused to play for the team following a dispute with coach Bjarne Berntsen.

Hegerberg had, whilst still playing for the national team, expressed what she expected from the national team: “I don’t want to be too negative, but at the same time I want to point to what the problems are, what is totally absurd and can be done much better. It is about respect, and I think women’s football does not have the respect it should have in Norway.” This sort of comment, however, became part of the armoury of criticism of her once she did pull out, her reasoning being interpreted by some as vague.

It also didn’t go unnoticed that Norway is one of the most egalitarian countries on the the planet (it’s number two in the world behind Iceland for gender equality at present, and has been for several years – and Iceland, it’s worth pointing out, only has a population of 320,000 people), and that the Norwegian Football Federation reach agreement to pay equal wages to the men’s and women’s teams. It is notable that this news story from the time makes no reference to Hegerberg, despite going into some detail about the negotiations and it coming only shortly after her retirement.

It is understood that she has gone into greater detail with the Norwegian Football Federation over her concerns, but news culture abhors a vacuum, so there has been a certain amount of inevitability about the tone of the criticism of her. It has been claimed that she primarily motivated by money, a slur common to both women and, it would seem, both male and female professional footballers and easily disavowed by the fact that she didn’t return with wage parity. It’s also been argued that she’s protesting a macho culture within FIFA, and that there was disharmony behind the scenes prior to her retirement from the national team. There isn’t really any evidence to support any of these whispers, either.

There’s also a possibility that a degree of cultural misinterpretation should to be taken into account, because different countries can have different attitudes towards heirs and graces. Consider a recent interview that Hegerberg gave with ESPN in which she stated, “I’m in a club that has standards, and I’m used to that. My family, we’re all about quality, so I put the bar quite high. I demand a lot of things from myself, but then I also demand that everything should be in place around me so that we can succeed.” Some might perceive this – whether rightly or wrongly – as arrogant, or at least jarringly direct. Others might consider such honesty refreshing. Others still might consider it to be arrogant or jarring, but might also consider that, if anybody is entitled to speak that way, it’s a footballer of her undoubted talent and accomplishment.

But cultural differences between countries do exist. Norway has no direct translation for the word “please” and this perception of “rudeness” has been noted elsewhere. Such things are seldom taken into account when the commentariat descend upon a story like this, though. Indeed, the frame of reference for some can only be through the perspective of the men’s game. This, for example, is a decent and thoughtful article on the subject from Yahoo News, but somebody saw fit to trail the story in this manner on news feeds. Hegerberg is a young, feminist woman. She was also the player asked to twerk when collecting that inaugural Ballon d’Or by host Martin Solveig at the end of last year. She has won the Champions League as many times as Lionel Messi. It might be worth reminding someone within Yahoo News’s social media department of that.

The key to understanding The Great Ada Hegerberg Mystery is that it simultaneously does and doesn’t matter what any of the rest of us think. It does, in that we should all support gender equality, and there also is no doubt that the stand that she has taken has been effective in raising awareness of the issue and may yet go some way towards improving equality in women’s football. However it also doesn’t matter, in that we can be reasonably certain that Ada Hegerberg DGAF what any of us think. She’ll make the stand that she wants to make, on her own terms. It holds true that it’s possible to understand all of this but still mourn the fact that she will not be taking part in this tournament, whether for footballing reasons, or because we feel it shouldn’t be necessary for anyone to feel this way in the first place. This, however, feels like an irrelevance in comparison with Ada Hegerberg is fighting for.