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I hate that I can’t watch Norway without thinking about Ada Hegerberg

Norway deserves to be appreciated for its own sake, without thinking about what could have been with one of the best players in the world.

Norway v Nigeria: Group A - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Norway was dominant and entertaining in its World Cup opener. A group of talented dribblers and powerful finishers dismantled Nigeria, 3-0, to set up a dramatic clash with France for the top spot in Group A.

This was supposed to be a close game. It was not.

When we think about Norway, it’d be nice if we could focus exclusively on the players on the pitch and what they can accomplish. We should be celebrating the likes of Caroline Graham Hansen, Guro Reiten, and Maren Mjelde without thinking what if. But I can’t help myself, and I bet you can’t either. There’s a big question looming over the team: What if Norway had Ada Hegerberg?

For the uninitiated, Hegerberg is the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and arguably the best player in the world. She has declined to play for the Norway national team for the past two years because she believes the program is unprofessional and would damage her ability to perform for Lyon, where she’s the highest paid women’s club player in the world.

Oddly, Norway has performed much better since Hegerberg’s departure. It finished above the Netherlands, the reigning European champions, in World Cup qualifying. It beat Denmark, China, and Poland consecutively to win the 2019 Algarve Cup, a warm-up tournament for this summer. And then on Saturday, Norway performed at a level it never did with Hegerberg in the lineup for the 2015 World Cup or 2017 European Championship.

Maybe the team is better now because it spreads the ball around instead of trying to feed one star? Or maybe it just had some other tactical issues to work through, and adding Hegerberg up top could be the thing that turns a very good Norway team into a World Cup favorite?

But oh my god, why am I even thinking about that? They can’t add her in, and this team is already great! Norway has so many awesome players. Graham Hansen is one of the best dribblers at the World Cup, and looked like a Golden Ball contender against Nigeria. Reiten is living up to her amazing record of 51 goals in her last 53 league matches, and picking out perfect through balls, too. Mjelde bossed Nigeria’s forwards, and looks like one of this tournament’s great leaders. Norway looks good enough to give France serious problems as is.

And yet, it’s hard to stop thinking of this team in terms of Hegerberg’s absence: What happened, and what could be?

This isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s certainly not Hegerberg’s. Perhaps it’s a little bit the Norwegian FA’s fault. But Norway’s current players didn’t cause this controversy, and they deserve to be evaluated on their own terms without an absent player constantly creeping into the discussion.

I wish that was easier, but I can’t help myself. I can’t stop thinking about Ada Hegerberg.