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Why Ada Hegerberg, the best player in soccer, is skipping the World Cup

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Fans are being deprived of seeing the best player on the brightest stage, but it has to happen.

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona - UEFA Women’s Champions League Final Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

The 2019 World Cup will be without the best player in the world. Norway announced this week that Ballon d’Or winning striker Ada Hegerberg would not play for her country, continuing a two-year protest pushing for equality in the sport.

Hegerberg’s decision should come as no surprise. The Olympique Lyonnais phenom has been resolute since 2017 that she won’t play for the national team until something is done to bring equal conditions in the sport. In that time nothing has changed, and now we will all miss out on seeing Hegerberg’s talent as a result.

Why is Hegerberg sitting out specifically?

The short answer is that she grew weary of the Norwegian women’s national team being treated as second-rate compared to the men’s team; in terms of pay, conditions, and the culture being fostered within the team as a whole.

How did this all start?

Hegerberg made waves in 2017 when she was sharply critical of the national team, and how the Norwegian soccer federation handled its players — saying she would sit out and not play for Norway until things changed.

The 23-year-old told Aftenposten that any time she left her club to play for the national team she would return feeling like a worse player as a result. That was coupled with a feeling that her leadership and suggestions weren’t valued, and it was stifling her ability as a player.

“[Passion.] That’s what has been missing, in my opinion. It’s constantly said that we should be pushing our potential, but it’s not happening in practice. Then it becomes difficult for individuals to grasp it. I feel like I’ve done that, but I can’t just be introspective. That is why I have come to the choice I have made, because that culture is not there.”

In response to the criticism the Norwegian soccer federation painted Hegerberg as the villain, claiming bad behavior and her attitude rubbed teammates the wrong way during UEFA Women’s Euro 2017, which saw Norway lose three straight games and get eliminated in the group stage.

Hegerberg said that while she was vocal about wanting the team to play better, none of her teammates approached her and said they had a problem with how she was conducting herself.

“I expect that if people have had a problem with me or my attitude, then they come and speak directly to me, face to face. No one has done that.”

There’s no question Hegerberg is uniquely qualified to know what it takes for a team to win. Since joining Olympique Lyonnais in 2014, she has scored 130 goals in 105 games, helped lead the team to an unprecedented four straight Champion’s League titles, and won the Ballon d’Or in 2018. Despite all this, Hegerberg still believed her contributions weren’t valued on the national team, going so far as to say the team didn’t want her to express herself.

“I expect an environment where one can express themselves, be themselves, perform and bring out the qualities one has both as a human being and a player so that one can succeed. If that isn’t happening then it is better that I step aside.”

Hegerberg told ESPN that playing in France is what opened her eyes to how the sport should operate. She sees parity in conditions and respect being paid to the men’s and women’s team equally, giving them opportunities to interact, cross-train, and work together. The juxtaposition from this to how the women’s national team was treated in Norway was too much to bear.

“It’s the amount of respect and the fact that we’re equal in terms of conditions, the pitches we have, eating in the same canteen, and really taking a part in the club together with the men’s team. People stay here a long time because they love it, they actually have a comfortable life here, and they can live from football and compete at the highest level.”

There’s a key issue here that Hegerberg is largely forced to stand alone by circumstance. She’s the highest-paid club player in the world (at least among reported salaries), which gives her the ability to take a stand against the Norwegian soccer federation. Her teammates are in many cases making equal, or even more money from Norway than their club teams — so the ability to be outspoken and get ostracized by the federation is too much to bear.

The difference here between Hegerberg and players for the USWNT is US players are making the lion’s share of their living from playing for the national team. The NWSL is largely a side job. Ultimately this makes Hegerberg not only the best player in the world, but the best positioned to make a stand — because the backlash from a national team hurts her less than it would others.

Being treated differently is unfortunately something Hegerberg is used to.

On the stage of the 2018 Ballon d’Or, even while being celebrated as the best women’s soccer player on the planet, Hegerberg was forced to deal with stupidity that diminished her accomplishments. French musician Martin Solveig, who helped MC the show asked her to twerk on stage, just after receiving the award.

The moment left those in attendance stunned, including Kylian Mbappe.

Hegerberg also explained how she’s often needled with questions about what her motives are. One journalist asked her if she considers herself a soccer player or a feminist, as if these are mutually exclusive concepts.

“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.”

What happens now?

Hegerberg says she plans to watch the World Cup from home. There are teammates from Olympique Lyonnais she wants to see play, but outside of that she doesn’t have much of an emotional connection to the tournament as a whole. Still she remains resolute that she’s doing what’s right.

“I’m totally confident with my decision since Day 1. It took me to the highest levels, the Ballon d’Or.”

Ada Hegerberg’s situation is endemic of the modern sports landscape. Players who want to win or change a locker-room culture are routinely seen as leaders, lauded, and vaunted for their competitiveness and spirit. We’ve seen these stories a thousand times. When Hegerberg wanted to see the same thing happen in Norway’s national team she was branded a trouble maker.

Norway will be without its best player. We will be deprived of seeing the best player in the world on the brightest stage. This is the kind of action needed to enact change, and disappointing as it maybe be for fans, it’s worth it.