Ada Hegerberg, ‘mentally broken’ by the treatment of women’s football, is delighted with the ‘joyful’ return to the Norwegian national team

By Christina Macfarlane and Issy Ronald, CNN

It was windy and snowing. “A very classic Norwegian evening,” as Ada Hegerberg puts it.

Despite the adverse weather conditions at the Release Arena in Sandefjord, the Norwegian’s overwhelming emotion was joy.
Playing her first game for Norway in five years, she celebrated the occasion with a hat-trick as her side beat Kosovo 5-1 in Women’s World Cup qualifiers last month.

“The crowd came, they came to support it, which I find amazing,” Hegeberg tells CNN’s Christina MacFarlane.

“Obviously I’m very focused ahead of games and everything, but seeing the national team again and seeing all these young girls and boys showing up to watch us play hit me deeply. And it was just a happy feeling. I will stick to that for a very long time.”

Five years ago, Hegerberg – then aged 21 – resigned from the national team after her experiences with the team left her “mentally broken” and frustrated with how women’s football was viewed in Norway.

“I can say very clearly that I never hope it ever happens to another player that you should be put in a position where you have to make a decision like that,” she said after returning to the team.

“But right now I would never forget it. I think we should cover the whole story. But at the same time I kind of moved on.”

During her absence from the national team, Hegerberg established herself as one of the best players in the world. She holds the record for most goals scored in the Champions League at 56 and was awarded the first-ever Ballon d’Or Feminine in 2018.

As well as these individual accolades, Hegerberg found great success with Lyon, guiding the club to five consecutive Champions League titles – a record for a side of either gender. On Saturday, Lyon will face Barcelona in this season’s Champions League final.

‘A new chapter’

Despite these achievements, Hegerberg stayed outside the international arena and steadfastly maintained their stance towards the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF).

The 2019 Women’s World Cup didn’t lure her back into the national team and Hegerberg says it was only the recent election of Lise Klaveness as president of the NFF – the first woman to hold the position – that persuaded her to return.

The pair played together when Hegerberg was just starting out in her career and she says discussions with Klaveness were central to her return to the national team. They spoke about their shared struggles with the association and the challenges women’s football faces.

“I felt like I grew a lot during those talks, but I felt it was the right time to go back and play for my country again,” says Hegerberg.

“I really think Lise can be a very important figure and position to shake things up so that young girls can be better cared for in the future. I would support her wholeheartedly to steer women’s football in the right direction. So it feels very good.”

Since Hegerberg retired from the national team, the NFF has changed its approach to the women’s team.

Men and women now receive equal financial compensation for representing Norway after an agreement was reached that doubled the pay pot for women from 3.1 million Norwegian kroner (US$330,739) to 6 million kroner (US$640,150).

“Of course, you shouldn’t forget that, so as not to repeat the same story, but I feel like it’s a new chapter, that it goes on and it’s also very refreshing,” says Hegerberg.

“And obviously you’re trying to build back on something because you have very good players in Europe now, Norwegian girls.

“So I think now is the time to just build brick by brick. And I’m also very motivated to take on some of the responsibility to keep pushing football in Norway in the right direction.”

“Give the conditions players deserve”

It’s not just in Norway that discussions about women’s football have changed in the years between Hegerberg’s last two international matches.

Last month, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) announced that women footballers playing in Italy’s top women’s league – Serie A – would be classified as professional athletes, ending years of capped salaries due to their amateur status.

“I have the feeling that we are slowly regaining momentum to get back into the good rhythm that we had before Covid hit us and build up more professionally,” says Hegerberg.

“Give the conditions that the players deserve and, on the whole, get a more professional day-to-day life so that we can get even better and show even better football in the long term. It’s about pushing us players – we just have to perform properly.”

Players are increasingly appearing on the biggest stages. Camp Nou – Barcelona’s stadium – has sold out twice in recent months, setting consecutive records for the most attendances at a women’s football match.

In March, 91,553 fans watched Barça beat Real Madrid in a UEFA Champions League quarter-finals and less than a month later, 91,648 were cheering their home side’s 5-1 win over Wolfsburg in the semi-finals.

“It’s brilliant,” says Hegerberg. “That’s what you want to achieve in the game and to see this sold out packed Camp Nou – it’s really amazing.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve, every women’s club. We’ve seen some good trends. And now the big challenge is to get those people back into the stadiums week after week and get the stability that we need.”

“The best part of the season”

Last season, without the injured Hegerberg, Lyon failed to reach the Champions League final for the third time in ten years, ending the club’s five-year tenure as European champions. Barcelona took advantage of Lyon’s absence and are now aiming for a first consecutive title.

“Obviously Barcelona are a very strong team,” said Hegerberg. “You can see they’ve been given time to develop their playstyle together. They also play very possession-oriented football.”

Hegerberg is playing knockout soccer for the first time in three years after missing nearly two seasons in January 2020 due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a stress fracture to her left shin.

“I’m just trying to enjoy every day, every second with the ball and spring is here and the big games are coming up,” she says. “So it’s probably the best part of the season too.”

After the Champions League final, Hegerberg is looking forward to the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Championship – her first major tournament since returning to the Norwegian team.

“It’s a tough tournament,” says Hegerberg. “It can go both ways. It’s about preparing very calmly but with concentration. And yes, we will be ready for anything. But we know from the past that we experienced a final in 2013 and then experienced the very tough EM in 2017.”

Norway lost all three group games in 2017, a disappointing streak for a side that started the tournament in fourth place.

This time the Norwegian campaign begins on July 7 with a game against Northern Ireland, who are looking to advance to the knockout stages from a group that also includes Austria and England.

“It’s about learning from these experiences and being as prepared as possible,” says Hegerberg, “but also having fun, because these tournaments are a highlight of your career.”

The CNN Wire
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