When the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup starts this month, one player will be conspicuous by her absence. Olympique Lyonnais striker Ada Hegerberg is probably the game’s top player, winning not only her home country of Norway’s Gold Ball, given to the best footballer in Norway, but also France’s first ever Ballon d’Or Féminin. And yet she will not be on the Norwegian team, having quit international football in 2017.
Her departure followed Norway’s dismal performance in that year’s UEFA Women’s European Championship finals, which saw them finish bottom of their group. After such a thrashing you’d expect the national game to rally round. But not a bit of it. Norwegian Football Federation president Terje Svendsen subsequently voted down a proposal to increase funding for the women’s game, saying the league should be sustainable without financial hand-outs.
Support came from an unexpected source, when the Norwegian men’s team agreed to take a cut so their female counterparts would earn equal pay. A noble act, but sadly not one that fixed the women’s game. When one of Norway’s top-tier clubs very nearly misses the chance of qualifying for the biggest competition in Europe because they lack a mere $7,000 to meet travel costs, Hegerberg’s protest is clearly well founded.
Hegerberg, who has guided Lyon to four Division 1 Féminine titles, three Women’s Champions League titles and netted almost 300 career goals, topped France Football’s recent list of highest-paid female players. The 23-year-old reportedly earns around $449,000 a year − not bad, but compare that to the reported $112m salary of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. Would global football powers intervene if Messi boycotted the world stage? Most certainly.
Hegerberg has suffered sexism off the pitch too. As she was presented with the Ballon d’Or in December, French DJ Martin Solveig, also at the podium, infamously asked her to twerk. Again, can you imagine someone saying something so crass to Messi?
Hegerberg’s goal-scoring prowess will be missed this summer, but only high-profile players stand a chance of influencing change. We owe our female football heroes a level playing field free from gender discrimination.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is 7 June – 7 July in France.