Published 12:36 PM EDT Jun 11, 2019
REIMS, France — The world’s best player has become its most controversial.
Ada Hegerberg’s decision two years ago to stop playing for Norway is a hot topic at the World Cup, where the Norwegians play France on Wednesday in a decisive Group A game. Some pundits and former players are defending the decision by the inaugural winner of the women’s Ballon D’Or, while others have branded her as selfish or questioned why she would pass up such a big platform to air her complaints about Norway’s federation.
Last week, Norway’s most popular men’s player effectively told Hegerberg to shut up, that all the talk about her boycott was detracting from the women still playing for the national team.
“Maybe you could find something better to do than disturb the national team’s preparations for the World Cup?” Martin Odegaard wrote on social media. “They have qualified for the World Cup on behalf of their country, one of the absolutely biggest things a football player can experience, and they’ve already had enough negative attention. They deserve better.”
Even American broadcasters have chimed in on the debate, with the Fox crew in Paris doing a nearly six-minute segment on Hegerberg and her unusual decision.
The World Cup is the biggest event in soccer, and it carries even more weight for the women because the international club system isn’t as established or lucrative as the men’s. So for someone to willingly pass up its spotlight is a huge statement — even for someone like Hegerberg, who was recognized last year as the world’s best player and commands a top salary with Europe’s best team, Olympique Lyonnais.
“It’s just a pity she’s going to waste this opportunity to really say something to the world, on and off the field,” said Alexi Lalas, who played for the U.S. at the men’s World Cup in 1994 and is now one of Fox’s lead analysts.
As for Hegerberg, she’s remained largely silent. She has turned down interview requests in recent weeks — including multiple ones from USA TODAY Sports since mid-April — and stories that have come out in the last week were from interviews done months ago.
But Hegerberg’s stance is neither new nor all that confusing.
Following Norway’s ouster at the 2017 European championship, Hegerberg said she would not play for the national team until the Norwegian federation addressed its unequal treatment of the women’s squad. Shortly after, Norway agreed to equal pay for both its men’s and women’s teams, but Hegerberg has said her complaints go beyond that.
In an August 2017 interview with Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, Hegerberg said the working conditions for the women’s team were inferior to the men’s, and the federation put less money into development of the women’s game. She has also said several times since then that while she might seem vague with the public, she’s been quite clear with Norwegian officials — something Norway has not disputed.
“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,” Hegerberg told ESPN.
“For me, it was really important that [the federation] knew what I was talking about, point by point. 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 continued. “But it doesn't seem like they took it in the way they should have. Ever since, I just put that behind me.”
So the World Cup goes on, but without the world's best player.