Should Ada Hegerberg have put Women’s Football before her personal crusade?

By 5:30pm BST on the 18th May 2019, Ada Hegerberg had crystallised her place at the pinnacle of Women’s football. Already the winner of the inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin, the Lyon striker had secured a first half hat-trick in the Champions League Final against FC Barcelona – a match they went on to win 4-1.

This evening, Norway will take to the field for their first Group match in the 2019 Women’s World Cup with Hegerberg spearheading the Norwegian attack and looking to add to her 38 goals in 66 international caps. The global stage beckons for a 23-year old footballer who is already a leading light in the sport…

The above paragraph is the sort of thing that I would like to have written. Only, this is not the case at all.  We will not get to see the best player in the world in action against the Super Falcons of Nigeria. Instead, Ada is taking a very different form of action this summer and it’s inevitably raising questions within the media and the wider footballing community about whether she should have put the women’s game before her own principles.

In 2017, Hegerberg decided to step back from international duties over dissatisfaction with the direction and speed of travel she believed the women’s game was headed and, more specifically, the prevailing attitudes within the Norwegian Football Federation – including the lack of investment in the national team, specifically pertaining to poor facilities and equal pay between men and women. Her stance has not softened since.

“I can’t sit and watch things not going in the right direction,” she told the BBC on receiving her 2019 Women’s Footballer of the Year Award, recently. But more detail, beyond high level rhetoric (#time for action) or calls for a change in attitudes, has been thin on the ground. The player has stated that she’s made it clear behind closed doors exactly what her views are and will not elaborate to the press or broadcast media – the very institutions that, arguably, could help whip up exactly the kind of discussion to promote her agenda.

Former Norway star and now Norwegian Sporting Director, Lise Klaveness, has gone on record to confirm that talks are ongoing to get Hegerberg back into the Norway set-up and that she hopes the matter can be resolved. But this wasn’t possible before the World Cup. Furthermore, it appears that the Norwegian Federation have moved somewhat towards Hegerberg’s way of thinking by equalising the remuneration of male and female international players.

Norway Head Coach, Martin Sjögren has played down Hegerberg’s importance, stating plainly that he’ll only concern himself with those players that want to be there. Sjögren took charge in 2016 and it’s interesting that Hegerberg stepped away after Euro 2017 the following year. Perhaps it’s all circumstantial timing, but the championships in Holland didn’t go well.

Which then raises the question of the Norway players themselves. What’s their take on all of this? Would they be likely to do better or worse with Hegerberg in the squad or would she just be a distraction? A pragmatic group could accept Ada’s position, while knowing that they were able to qualify without her. But surely it must cross the players’ minds how much further could we go in the tournament with a striker who delivers a goal-per-game average in both domestic and European competition. Why haven’t they publicly backed her?

“I’m confused by it. When Ada’s been asked to explain in detail she doesn’t. If my captain was making such a stance, I would be behind her. So, I’m questioning why aren’t the rest of the Norway team going with her if it’s such an important message?”

Alex Scott, former England defender and TV pundit
Ada Hegerberg celebrates with her Lyon teammates

Look, it is commendable that Hegerberg is willing to stand up for something that she strongly believes in, while basically sacrificing her own international ambitions. There’s no doubt whatsoever that she is passionate about ensuring women get the same opportunities in football, but there appear to be more questions than answers in all this. Is stepping away from a world-wide audience the best way for her to convey her message?

For a young woman who so clearly has a handle on winning, this one-sided stand-off is somewhat confusing: who exactly is winning by her sitting out of the World Cup?

Is pushing the issues of pay equality and respect for women in football more or less likely in her absence? Without her voice there on the front line? Could she generate more noise about these things at the tournament rather than away from it? Do the “men in suits”, she’s referred to in previous interviews, lose that much sleep over her proverbially sticking two fingers up at them as part of this self-imposed exile?  The world will turn. Matches will be played. And, afterwards, how much more accommodating is the ‘establishment’ likely to behave towards her. She’ll already have missed one tournament. It feels lose, lose.

Not only are a growing army of fans going to miss the game’s shining star, but Hegerberg herself will miss the opportunity to help push the profile of the women’s game to her biggest potential audience – at a time where the commercial attractiveness of the game is under scrutiny in order to move it to the next level through investment and media coverage. Surely the women’s game would have benefited more with all its big hitters being there?

She’s a terrific footballer with an important message and a strong voice with which to convey it. But her approach comes over as counterintuitive. Wasn’t the best way to highlight the issues is to be at the tournament, play brilliantly and talk until the sun goes down about what needs to change in concrete terms so that issues could be amplified, debated and addressed?

But then maybe the thought of trying to play international football and politics at the same time was just not very appealing. Would she be able to focus? Would the team? Would one thing have simply diluted the other. Good performances would rubber stamp her message but bad performances would have the converse effect.

It’s disappointing that the FIFA Women’s World Cup is not going to see its No.1 superstar in France this summer. But if she believes taking one for the team now is likely to be more beneficial to women’s football in the future, it will be a worthwhile sacrifice.

For those of us who just wanted to see her play, we’ll have to take consolation in the fact that she is still very young and the game’s administrators have time on their side to put changes in place that will encourage her back on to the world stage for that much anticipated tournament appearance. Assuming, of course, that Norway can negotiate their pathway to another championship…

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