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Ada Hegerberg's Campaign For Soccer Equity In Norway08:57
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Ada Hegerberg. (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Ada Hegerberg. (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

In late 2017, the Norwegian football association announced a deal to pay members of the men's and women's national teams equally.

"It took a re-allocation of some of the budget at the [Norwegian Football] Federation, but also the men agreeing to give up some of their match fees so that the women could earn the same," says Joshua Robinson, who covers European sports for the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s how the deal went down. In the fall of 2017, the Norwegian Players' Association — which represents both the men’s and women’s team players — asked the Norwegian Football Federation to increase marketing money for the women.

Instead, according to the head of the player’s association, the Federation said, "Wouldn’t it be a good signal if we did things equally?"

The men’s team agreed to take a small pay cut. And the women’s salaries nearly doubled.

So why would Norway’s federation take this step, making a concession the union hadn’t even asked for? Well, you could argue that they did it because of one woman: Ada Hegerberg.

"Anyone who follows women's football — and, indeed, football in Europe — Hegerberg's name has been around for at least a couple years," Robinson says. "She's been tearing it up for Lyon, which is one of the most dominant teams — not just in women's soccer, but in sports in the world.

"They've won over 10 straight league titles in France. In fact, in the four years that she's been at Lyon, she's only failed to win one tournament that the team was entered in. She has more trophies than any player could ever imagine by the age of 23. And last winter, she also made a splash when she won the first Ballon d'Or. It was a momentous night.

"The Ballon d'Or is a prize awarded by a French soccer magazine over the last half century for the best player in the world. And there has always been a men's award. And last year, for the first time, they awarded it to the women's player of the year. And that was Hegerberg. She was the clear favorite and the clear choice for it.

"And unfortunately, what happened was, in this bizarre and kind of insulting moment, a French DJ who was hosting the ceremony asked her, ‘Do you know how to twerk?’

"I think everyone in the room's jaw kind of hit the floor. No one knew quite what to make of this, and she put him right in his place and said ‘No.' "

The uproar over that question overshadowed Hegerberg's acceptance speech — which ended with a message to young girls around the world: "Please believe in yourself."

Hegerberg first came onto the international scene at age 16, when she started playing for the national team.

"Already her talent was clear," Robinson says. "Hegerberg's been in a challenging position with the national team ever since the Euros two years ago.

"Norway crashed out — a historically good team, Norway, but they crashed out without so much as a goal or a victory in the group stage. And that was enough for her. She left the team and decided that the conditions of the national team were not geared for high performance or geared for excellence. And it was a question of respect for the women's national team, which historically has been much more successful than the men's national team in Norway.

"Norway was starting from a place that was already much more egalitarian than most countries with respect to women in sports and women's sports funding. And yet she still felt that things weren't quite right. So she stepped away. It was huge news in Norway."

Hegerberg stepped away from the team in August of 2017. In October, Norway announced that equal pay deal. But that wasn’t enough to bring her back.

"I don't think it's about the money," Robinson says. "I think it’s a question of attitudes that she perceived within the whole national team setup. From the Federation's side, they're pretty hopeful that someday she might reconsider. She's only 23, and she's got a long career in front of her. And it is slightly galling for them to know that the best player in women's soccer is from their country and won't wear the jersey. So the conversation is expected to resume after the World Cup. But for now, Hegerberg is perfectly content to focus on her club soccer in France." 

As the Women's World Cup approached, the spotlight was always going to be on Hegerberg and her decision. But three weeks ago, in the Champions League Final, she reminded everyone what Norway was going to be missing in this tournament.

"She couldn't have timed it better," Robinson says. "It was Lyon from France, the defending champions of France, against Barcelona, the best team in Spain. And they met in the final in Budapest in the national stadium. There were more than 20,000 people in the stadium, which is a huge attendance for women's soccer in Europe.

"She scored a hat trick in the space of 30 minutes in the first half. She burst through the screen. I mean, she was unbelievable to watch."

But the Norwegian national team has been doing pretty well without Hegerberg.

"They've progressed over the last two years. I mean, certainly they couldn't do any worse than they did at the Euros," Robinson says. "But they're in a tough group at the Women's World Cup. And it includes one of the pre-tournament favorites and host France.

"It hasn't been easy for Hegerberg either. This is not a decision she took lightly. And from people close to her that I've spoken to, it's one she's grappled with for a long time, but that she is at peace with right now. It really is no small thing to give up the biggest stage in women's soccer to stick to your guns."

But is the stand Ada Hegerberg has taken likely to make an impact? Or is everyone just goign to forget about it once the games really get going?

"I think the fact that we're talking about it is already showing that there is an impact. And her absence will be felt at the tournament," Robinson says. "Every time Norway trots out there, we're going to hear about Hegerberg not being there.

"But it is a wake-up call for more than Norway. The fact that this is happening at what will be probably the most watched Women's World Cup in Women's World Cup history — because every tournament beats the last — it acts kind of as a megaphone for her message. And I think that others will pay attention and, you would hope, take a hard look at themselves and how they run their federations."

For more on Ada Hegerberg, check out Joshua Robinson's recent Wall Street Journal article "The Best Player in Women's Soccer Is Skipping the World Cup." 

This segment aired on June 8, 2019.

Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the senior producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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