RALEIGH, N.C. — As the Women’s World Cup unfolded this summer in France, the game’s best player was a spectator by choice.
Ada Hegerberg, a Norwegian forward with an astonishing scoring rate, attended the opener in Paris and the final in Lyon, the charming city she has called home as a pro player since 2014. Norway had qualified for the tournament, but in a stance borne two years ago over gender-equality issues, she did not participate in the soccer spectacle.
The U.S. team took its grievances to court, both federal and public opinion.
Hegerberg, 24, did it through personal defiance.
Imagine Lionel Messi boycotting Argentina in his prime or Kylian Mbappe blowing off France before last year’s World Cup in Russia.
In this case, the Women’s World Cup went on without the BBC’s footballer of the year in 2017 and ’19 and the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner as the best in the game.
“To be able to take a decision like that, you need to be quite clear about your wishes, your values, what has happened, my experiences,” Hegerberg said in an interview here Tuesday. “At some point, you say, ‘Stop,’ and you need to listen to what your heart is saying and what your brain is also saying.”
Her heart and brain told her to not represent her nation, to continue raising her voice, to channel her energy toward her club, European power Olympique Lyonnais, which champions equality in the men’s and women’s game.
So she watched the month-long competition, mostly on TV, with family and friends in Norway and France. Five weeks later, in preseason with Lyonnais at the Women’s International Champions Cup on Thursday and Sunday in Cary, N.C., Hegerberg said she does not harbor any regrets.
“It’s really strange for people not seeing me in a World Cup, and I totally get that,” she said. “But at the same time, I always assumed whatever decision I take, I would stay confident in it. That is the kind of person I am. Hopefully, the next generation doesn’t have to do the same thing.”
Frustrated by the national federation’s investment in the women’s program, Hegerberg has not played for Norway since summer 2017. Hence, her absence from the World Cup was not unexpected.
It was, however, conspicuous amid growing interest in the women’s game. And in the weeks leading to the tournament, her truancy further fueled the case being made by French-bound players from the United States, Australia and others about disparities in men’s and women’s funding.
In March, the U.S. team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The sides are scheduled to enter mediation.
Although she admires the high-profile U.S. effort, Hegerberg said, “Everyone is fighting their own battle all over the world, if you’re in the press or not in the press. I like to call it ‘everyday heroes’ that you never hear about. Those are my idols, too.
“I know how hard it is to stick up for what you believe in. The sense of being alone when you believe in something is maybe the toughest part.”
Things have improved for the Norwegian players. In late 2017, the federation brought women’s compensation on par with the men’s. Still, Hegerberg’s outspokenness did not sit well with the federation, which, despite hearing complaints over the years from other players, seemed to single her out and blame her for friction inside the squad.
Hegerberg does not like talking about the national program, which advanced to last month’s quarterfinals.
“There was so much stuff going on with me not participating, so I just [put] distance to it all,” the 5-foot-11 striker said. “Whenever I speak up about the team, everything blows up again. When I don’t speak, it also blows up. I said what I wanted to say and am looking forward to another season” with Olympique Lyonnais.
In Lyon, Hegerberg has won league titles in each of her five seasons, plus four consecutive UEFA Champions League trophies. With an estimated base salary of $450,000, she is believed to own the world’s richest women’s soccer contract. (U.S. stars such as Alex Morgan are the wealthiest, thanks to millions in endorsements.)
Hegerberg’s scoring ability at Lyonnais is undisputed: 130 goals in 105 league matches and 193 in 165 across all competitions, including a hat trick in the Champions League final in May against Barcelona.
Asked if the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League is in her future, she said: “You never know where football takes you. I’m going to be in Lyon for a couple years more. The [NWSL] season is quite short [six months, compared to up to nine in European leagues]. It’s a real interesting country because of all the good players in the NWSL.”
Last year, at the first Women’s ICC in Miami, Lyonnais lost in the final to the North Carolina Courage, 1-0. This year’s tournament includes the host Courage, Spanish champion Atletico Madrid and English titan Manchester City.
Led by Lyonnais, several European clubs have in recent years made greater investment in their women’s programs. The popularity of the World Cup, coupled with public awareness of the equality issues, seemed to nudge additional clubs and national federations.
“It’s great to hear all this talk; you want to see it, as well,” Hegerberg said. “So always having a critical eye that what has been said turns to action. That is the next step.”
Another challenge, she added, is turning women’s soccer into a weekly showcase and drawing fans who otherwise only watch the Olympics and World Cup. “We have some work to do.”
One area where women’s soccer has made gains is attracting more mainstream viewers. “People thought it was normal to watch a World Cup — men or women, young boys, young girls,” Hegerberg said. “It is football.”
For each sign of progress, she added, barriers remain.
“I have days where I am completely hopeless about the future and then most of the time I am really positive and trying to give it all to make a change in the right direction. It’s all about supporting each other because every one of us has the same challenges.
“The more people you have, the more voices you have to make a difference.”
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