ISSUE 02 COVER: ADA HEGERBERG
WORDS: HANNAH O'NEILL / BEAUTY: PHILOMENE LUCAS
This article is an excerpt from the Ada Hegerberg cover feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.
To say Ada Hegerberg is at the top of her game would be an understatement. A forward for Division 1 club Olympique Lyonnais, the striker has averaged more than a goal a game at every level of club competition. She’s the record holder for most goals in a UEFA champions league season, this year’s BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year – the 24 year-old is, justifiably, the most celebrated female footballer of the moment.
Having a bristling trophy cabinet and being listed alongside the greats in ‘Best Footballer’ lineups isn’t really what drives Hegerberg though. “It kind of gives you an idea of where you stand at the moment,” she says, “but at the same time you grab that information and move on.”
“It should be a factor that motivates you, but generally for me, it’s back to work. Back to training, do the work, play good games, play a good season. My goal is to stay at the highest level possible, year in and year out.”
A particular career highlight came last year, when Hegerberg became the first recipient of the Ballon d’Or Feminin. It was a night of celebration, unspoilt by host Martin Solveig’s misguided twerking gaffe.
The footballer spent the evening celebrating with her family – “I didn’t have my husband [Thomas Rogne, a defender for Polish club Lech Poznań] which was sad, but he’s a footballer as well – that’s just the reality!” They wound up in an Iranian restaurant. “It was the only place open in the streets of Paris. We just sat there and ate, and the Ballon d’Or was just in this box on the table.” She shakes her head as she recalls the bizarre experience. “It was surreal, for sure.”
Receiving the award was an historic moment not just for the young player but for the women’s game as a whole. She looks back on it as a collective achievement. “That moment meant everything to all of us,” she says. “Even if it’s an individual trophy, it had such importance for the women’s sport. It’s something I’ve fought for my whole career, just to have that mutual respect for all the work we put down. I really felt it in that moment. It was a symbol of the way modern football should be in 2019.”
"MY GOAL IS TO STAY AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL POSSIBLE, YEAR IN AND YEAR OUT.”
Hegerberg has made it her mission to see the women’s game to be acknowledged on a level with the men’s. She decided to sit out the Women’s World Cup this summer and watch her Norway national team from the sidelines instead, a symbol of protest against the pay difference between the men’s and women’s national teams in Norway. But she followed as a fan, tuning in alongside record breaking audiences.
For Hegerberg, the best thing about the tournament was seeing the stadiums full of people.
“Personally, I find playing in front of a packed stadium the biggest motivation, and it’s maybe the biggest dream I have for the future and for those who come after,” she explains. “Playing in front of thousands of people is such an amazing experience. And I’ve experienced finals, euros where we’ve played in front of 42,000, Champion League finals – it’s just another level, you know?”
Hegerberg is one of a number of players keeping the wind in the sails of the women’s game, after a hype-filled summer in the spotlight. In the build up to and afterglow of the Women’s World Cup, women’s grassroots football saw a surge of interest like never before, with light footed teenagers through to aging amateurs stepping out on drizzly pitches up and down the country. In the UK, the FA is aiming to double the number of women and girls playing football in England by July 2020.
Perhaps it’s a sense of responsibility to keep this momentum going that drives Hegereberg to be better every game. “It’s up to us to train even harder and harder and harder,” she says. “We have to stay out of our comfort level, to develop the level and push the level into the right direction.
Alongside the likes of US captain Megan Rapinoe, who she sits with on the 2019 Best FIFA Women’s players shortlist, Hegerberg is determined to see the game elevated to the same level as the men’s. She’ll know she’s done her job, she says, when people start following women’s competitions like they would any other football tournament.
“When everything gets normal about women’s football, we’re starting to get there.”
There’s a strong sense of mutual respect for her football peers, and she has watched the US Women’s national team’s fight for equal pay with admiration. “Women should support women – that’s something I always say. We all want the same thing, for women to get the position they deserve. I have huge admiration for people like Rapinoe speaking up because it takes a lot of guts. It’s not easy to stand up for your opinions.”
Growing up in Sunndalsøra, a village tucked between mountains in Norway, Hegereberg didn’t have any female footballers to idolize. Instead she had the same heroes as every other twelve year old doing kick ups in the backyard.
“I’ve been watching Messi and Ronaldo since I was young, and I used to watch the legends in AC Milan, Puyol in Barcelona.” And, obviously, Henry – “because he was such a clinical finisher.”
But she wants the next generation of female footballers to be able to reel off women’s names when they’re talking about their footballing heroes. “I didn’t have those female role models, and that’s what we’re trying to change today.”
Football is a family affair for Hegerberg. Her mum used to coach her sister, her dad used to coach her brother, and her dad was also a coach for her mum in her own football career. “Basically, I had no choice!”
Hegerberg’s sister Andrine is also busy carving out an accomplished football career, having just signed with Roma in Italy’s Serie A. Ada credits Andrine, older by two years, with kickstarting her own football journey.
“We grew up in a small village and she would pull me out with her friends and we would go kicking ball together. She kind of dragged me out on stuff I really didn’t want to at the beginning, but then I got used to it I was like, this is cool!”
“It’s special that we’re both taking part at the highest level of the game,” she continues. “I’m really proud of that.”
Hegerberg has the kind of self assurance that comes with knowing your talents from a young age, and spending your whole life honing them.
“Pressure drives me,” she explains. “I put high stakes on myself as an individual, but also on the team because I know in Lyon, we have the best qualities. You have to push yourself and push each other to reach that potential.”
It’s a single mindedness that has got her to where she is today, and has been part of her journey as a footballer from the beginning.
“When you find out what you’re good at and what your qualities are, you should put one hundred percent into developing them,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to know yourself, to know what you’re good at, where you want to go with it, and just put a tonne of belief into it. It can be a tough road and it takes time, but it’s as simple as that.”
Even though she’s playing in the big leagues now, she gets the same feeling when she walks out on the pitch. “I’m 100% convinced that it’s the same feeling as when I was fifteen, because every game has the same importance for me,” she explains. “It’s my biggest passion in life.”
But it’s also so much more than the game itself. “What makes football so special is that it gathers the whole world,” says Hegerberg. “Everyone can play football, everyone can watch football.”
At the heart of it, for Hegerberg, are the people she steps out onto the pitch with.
“I love that feeling of working hard to achieve something as a team. It can be challenging but it’s also the best feeling when you’ve reached a goal together. Those are the best memories I will have in life – those trophies that I won with my teams.”
Hegerberg is on a seemingly unstoppable trajectory to legendary status – you get the sense that it will be her name kids around the world will be saying in the not too distant future as they kick balls around playgrounds and favelas.
For now, football is her world. “I think about football 24/7. It’s driving me every minute – it can be a pain in the ass sometimes!”
But the twenty-four year old is trying not to let it consume her completely. It’s a balancing act – dedication, a lot of discipline, and hard work, but most importantly?
“Have fun playing ball. If you don’t have fun, it’s not worth it!”
And with a double thumbs up, she’s off to lace on her boots and outrun her only real competition – herself.
Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.