Sports

Why the World’s Best Soccer Player Isn’t Playing in the World Cup

Ada Hegerberg raises her arms in celebration.
Ada Hegerberg celebrates her hat trick during the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final on May 18.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Ada Hegerberg is the best female soccer player in the world. The 23-year-old Norwegian striker has, during her five seasons with the dominant French club Olympique Lyonnais, scored 130 goals in 105 games. Among other accomplishments, her team has won the past four Champions League titles. In the most recent one, she scored three goals in the first 30 minutes of the final. But she is not playing in this year’s World Cup.

Why? She’s protesting—but the details of her protest are still partly unknown. Two years ago, Hegerberg informed the Norwegian soccer federation that she did not plan to play for the national team until she saw some kind of proof of progress toward greater support for the women’s program. She has kept to that promise, and Norway will kick off against Nigeria on Saturday without the country’s star player.

Hegerberg has been willing to go on record about some of her frustrations, but she has remained evasive about the details (“When the media asked me what I told the federation, I said, ‘That’s between me and them so they can work on it,’ ” she told ESPN). The conflict began in 2017, after Norway lost three straight games during the UEFA European Women’s Championship and was eliminated in the group stage. Hegerberg quickly voiced her frustrations with the team’s management, which she blamed in part for their poor performance. (The Norwegian federation in turn criticized Hegerberg for what they called a poor attitude.)

Hegerberg rejected what she saw as the Norwegian federation’s attack on her character. “I’ve never been trying to control the starting 11, or something internal to the group,” she told CNN Sport. “This is a feeling that’s based on my whole experience with the national team. It’s not even up to me anymore. I’ve moved on in my career and my life.”

She told Aftenposten that the women’s national team was treated as inferior to the men’s when it came to pay, working conditions, investment at the youth and club levels, and team culture, even though the women’s team has historically been more successful than the men’s. She said that, combined with a general lack of ambition from the other players, her time playing with the national team left her feeling like a worse player. “It’s constantly said that we should be pushing our potential, but it’s not happening in practice,” she told the Norwegian paper.

She told CNN: “There are federations, there are clubs, there are men in high positions who have that responsibility to put the women in the right place and that’s where I think, I feel, and I know, we have a long way to go.”

She has maintained that it’s not about money but more an issue of respect and opportunity for women at the top levels of the sport. She lauded her club team, which she said treated men and women equally: using the same quality fields, dining together, being respected and held to the same high standards. She also expressed, vaguely, the idea that she and the national team were not performing to their full potential in part because of the management style that did not allow Hegerberg the creativity or leadership opportunities that she deserved and needed. As she told ESPN:

I was trying to make an impact [on Norway] for a lot of years, and I could see that in this system, in the federation, it didn’t fit me at all. I feel like I was placed in a system where I didn’t have a voice. I felt this weight on my shoulders more and more: This isn’t working. … For me at that point, being able not to lose myself and not to lose what I believe in, I had to take that choice. I couldn’t go any other way. And as soon as I did it, it was like [exhales], I could be myself again. I could perform on the highest level again.

She also told reporters that the Norwegian soccer federation officials didn’t take her protest “in the way they should have,” as she wanted them to work on several specific issues. “It can’t be easy when a woman stands and tries to be critical in a positive way,” she said. “Ever since, I just put that behind me and try to perform at the highest level with Lyon.” But she said she knew she would be facing a fight when she made the decision. According to ESPN, she said:

Even though sometimes I would be like, [sighs], ‘Am I really going to take on that fight?’ I would always think, ‘but what will it bring for the future, for others?’ … It’s impossible to play football in a world among men and not fight for equality. We’re all feminists. Playing football can be damn harsh, but every day is a fight for equality. That’s a fact. We’ve made it here [in Lyon] because you’ve got one man at the top believing in us. But it’s still a long, long way to go, and you can see it in small examples every day.

Since she made that decision, Norway has made progress that has pleased some critics and soccer fans. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2017, the Norwegian federation committed to paying both of its national teams equally, in what is thought to be the first deal of its kind in international soccer. (In March, for comparison, the U.S. Women’s National Team announced that all 28 members of its team had filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over inferior wages, support, and working conditions compared with the men’s team.) Last summer, the Norwegian federation also appointed a woman as the director of the national programs. That woman, attorney and former player Lise Klaveness, said the federation would spend more money on the women’s team than the men’s this year. “Which for me is a given, because we’re going to the World Cup with the women, but I guess in many federations that’s just utopia,” she told the Journal.

But Hegerberg apparently remains unconvinced that these changes resolve the deeper-rooted problems she saw in the team.

It’s hard to know how her stand has—or will—affect the national team. But we do know that she has already shed light on sexism in the business. She was once asked by a journalist if she considered herself a soccer player or a feminist, as if the two were mutually exclusive. She has pushed back on the idea. When she received the 2018 women’s Ballon d’Or—she was the inaugural winner of what is now soccer’s highest prize for an individual female player (the Ballon d’Or for men was introduced in the 1950s)—a French musician who helped MC the ceremony asked her if she would twerk on stage. She gave a firm no.

Hegerberg is in a uniquely strong position to take a stand on the issues. She is undeniable as a world star, even without appearing at the World Cup, because of her career on her club team. Unlike in the U.S., where club soccer is far less prestigious and profitable than the national team, Hegerberg’s club team pays her more than the Norwegian national team can—she is, according to SB Nation, the highest paid female club player in the world. As James Dator of SB Nation noted, for other Norwegian players, and for many other players across the world, taking such a stand could be a career-killer. For Hegerberg, it’s not.

It’s remarkable that this story has not been more dominant in the news cycle. In June, when the Norwegian federation confirmed Hegerberg would be sitting out, search inquiries for Cristiano Ronaldo (arguably Hegerberg’s equivalent as the best male soccer player) still outstripped those for Hegerberg by a factor of 60 to 1. Her story has gained traction in recent days as the World Cup approached, but Ronaldo’s name still has been searched about four times as often. International women’s soccer has been making strides, led by the women themselves. But try to imagine for a second the questions, the public outcry, the wall-to-wall news coverage if Ronaldo had decided to skip the 2018 World Cup in protest.