“I touched a ball, so that’s a nice feeling,” says Ada Hegerberg with a wry smile. The expectations of the first woman to win the Ballon d’Or, in 2018, have clearly dropped dramatically this year. Now, it is about every small step on the road to recovery. An ACL injury in her right knee cut short her season in January, then a stress fracture to her left tibia forced her to have a second operation in September.
A silver lining, that she has suffered the first serious injuries of her career in a year when football paused for six months, has faded. “I told myself that earlier in the rehab and now I’m just like: ‘Nah, let me just get back out there.’”
The Norwegian sighs and says that it has been tough. “When you’ve already been through a first rehab and are really getting into shape and feel you’ve worked your butt off for months it’s a slap in the face when you realise you’ve got other things that need to be taken care of,” she says.
One small positive – apart from being able to spend time with her husband and family – is that the stress fracture in her left leg has “bought me more time to work on my knee” and stopped her rushing back from the ligament injury too soon to play for Lyon. There has also been the opportunity to renew her relationship with a game that, no matter how much you love it, can become businesslike when it is your job.
“That’s been, not a challenge, but a task year-in and year-out,” says the 25-year-old. “You always have to find new impulses to be able to start a new season with a fresh head, fresh motivation.”
The ambition now is to return even more explosive andHegerberg has used the time to take care of her body by working with a new nutritionist, looking at prevention programmes and doing work in the gym. All of that is part of a plan to turn a lost year into a long-term gain.
As the five-times Champions League winner, and the competition’s all-time top-scorer, has raged a battle with her body off the pitch, what she has done on it has been somewhat forgotten. Despite having scored 23 goals in 18 appearances in the first half of last season, she has been omitted from the top-player lists and shortlists for individual awards. “Oh for sure,” she says with a grin when asked whether she is looking forward to reminding the world she exists. “I’m not coming back just to come back, I’m coming back to reconquer my position in world football.”
It is that determination to be the best and stay the best that meant after winning the Ballon d’Or all she could focus on was training for the next game against Soyeux away. “It’s brutal,” she says. “But at the same time it’s a key factor in helping me stay at the top, always striving for the next thing.”
One way to remind the world, or the US for now, of Hegerberg’s existence, is My Name is Ada Hegerberg, a documentary from Relevant Sport that aired on ESPN in the US on Thursday. It shows her journey from “just caring about bugs” to watching Bend It Like Beckham and realising that it was OK for female footballers to have long hair, to being a professional footballer at the top of the game. It also includes her discussing the future of the game for women and girls.
Central to it, though, is a subject Hegerberg would rather avoid and perhaps would have preferred to be more of a footnote: her decision to step back from the Norwegian national team in 2017, a decision that resulted in her sitting out the 2019 World Cup.
“It’s a hard balance because I’m a footballer not a politician,” she says. “You want the football and all the hours on the pitch to be shown, you want all the sacrifice and all the love for the game to be shown and all the great people that you have around you. I’m not here to provoke in any way. It’s honest thoughts and it’s me. I’m just here to perform and drive the sport in the right direction. But at the same time I am realistic about the situation we find ourselves still in, that there’s so much stuff to do in order for women and young girls to get the conditions they deserve.”
Hegerberg has always been clear about her decision to step back, it is because she wants to see a greater commitment to women’s and girls football in Norway from the federation. “It was never a quick-fix decision,” she says. “I’ve just tried to have an impact on things for the better, at some point that can leave you with some tough choices.”
In the documentary Hegerberg does give a flavour of some of the issues at the root of her decision; unequal opportunities for girls and boys to play football, women and girls being forced to wait to use pitches, boots arriving for a tournament late and in the wrong size, a boys’ team playing on the best pitch while the women’s team that had qualified for a World Cup had to train and watch from an inferior pitch.
Given the merit of the issues she raises, why does she hate talking about it? “I understand more and more why people in the public eye speak less and less about their opinions and what they mean, because you can never be too sure if what you express is being delivered in the way you meant it.”
She sits between a rock and a hard place. She has been criticised for not going into detail and when she did a little more, in an interview with Norwegian magazine Josimar, she was heavily criticised for undermining the national team as they prepared for the 2019 World Cup. Except that is not what she did. “Finally, one journalist that gets it,” she says with relieved laugh.
Hegerberg was interviewed for a feature issue on the history of women’s football in her country five months before the World Cup but her quotes were lifted out of context and plastered everywhere on the eve of the tournament. “I just stayed very, very calm during that period,” she says. “I had contributed to a magazine where they talked about women’s history and considered for a long time about whether I would contribute, thinking about how much fire there was around this case.”
Other players and former players were involved and Hegerberg says she felt she had a responsibility to share some of her experiences. “That whole time was messed up but, as you say in Norwegian, ‘I stayed still in my boat’. It’s an expression that means you let people do the talking, but you know the real story. I never ever pointed a finger at anyone, at the team or anything, I just talked about my experience of things before 2017.”
The executive producer of the documentary, and chief executive officer of Relevent Sport, Daniel Sillman, says it was this story, and the chance for Hegerberg to be able to tell it in her own words, that made them want to make the film. “We were very curious to learn about what her position was, why she was not participating in it and what she was fighting for. It wasn’t a story that was told across the world, especially in the United States.”
Hegerberg has moved on from that decision a long time ago and is concentrating on her return to club football with the European champions, but the subject is still being raised and it will continue to be brought up before every World Cup and Euros as long as she is still performing and scoring.
Is there any chance of her slowing down so it’s less of an issue? “Definitely not,” she says, laughing. “I knew the consequences behind a decision like that. The first thing you need to know is the consequences behind each choice you make in life and you need to face them. I know it’s going be a subject as long as I don’t play for the national team and that’s something I need to deal with.”
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