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Norwegian soccer player Ada Hegerberg won't sacrifice fight for equality for stardom

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Hegerberg looking to leave women's soccer in a better place (0:30)

When Ada Hegerberg decided to opt out of playing for the Norwegian national team in 2017, everyone had something to say. Years later, the Lyon striker tells her own story in the documentary "My Name is Ada Hegerberg," streaming now on ESPN+. (0:30)

Most of the days I'm positive. I promise. And then I have days where I'm just -- I feel hopeless. It gets to a point where you get so furious that you just wanna scream it out there, ya know? And I understand women who are furious today because there's so much to be furious about.

The first words spoken by Norwegian soccer player Ada Hegerberg in the new documentary film "My Name Is Ada Hegerberg" speak to the tug-of-war raging within the 25-year-old striker.

On one hand, she's got the goods to be an international superstar and the face of the game -- young, talented and successful, with the "it" factor of a Hollywood celeb.

At the same time, Hegerberg isn't willing to sacrifice integrity for stardom.

She famously opted out of playing for the Norwegian national team in the summer of 2017, protesting unequal treatment for the women's side. She hasn't donned a Norway kit since, sitting out the 2019 World Cup and missing the opportunity to shine on the sport's biggest stage.

Her absence was especially notable as much of the tournament was held in Lyon, France, the home of her club team, and because six months earlier she had been awarded the very first Ballon d'Or Feminin, honoring the world's best female soccer player.

"It was a massive deal for her to sit out the World Cup," former United States women's national soccer team player and ESPN analyst Julie Foudy said, comparing Hegerberg's opt-out to the USWNT's prolonged fight for equal pay. "What the U.S. did as a team, Ada did individually, which had to be scary as hell. I applaud her commitment to equality and her bravery for realizing there are things that are just more important."

The fact that Hegerberg's protest wasn't top news in the U.S. like it would be for a male superstar is part of what inspired Relevent Sports Group to make her the focus of the company's first full-length documentary, available now on ESPN+.

"If it were [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo sitting out a World Cup, you wouldn't have to say anything; it would have been the biggest story in the world," Relevent Sports Group CEO Daniel Sillman said. "Because it's a women's footballer, it goes a bit unnoticed. So we're just trying to get as much attention for Ada and her story, and empower as many women's athletes as we can."

As Hegerberg's original decision to remove herself from Team Norway becomes more distant, and as talk of her absence from the World Cup fades, there's no denying that her influence among casual soccer fans has dwindled.

While Hegerberg has received plenty of support for demanding better from the Norwegian federation, not everyone reacted to her opt-out with enthusiasm, and the criticism she has received has clearly taken a toll.

She might have the soul of a revolutionary, but she is still figuring out how to reconcile the anger stirring within. Like so many women before her, there's a fear that asking for more will make her seem ungrateful, disruptive or -- worst of them all -- unlikable. The moment a woman asks for more is the moment she prioritizes what she needs over the opinion others have of her.

Hegerberg said she wants things to change but doesn't want to keep paying the price for speaking out. She has been bruised by her experiences pushing back on patriarchal practices, and the result is a stubbornness and steadfastness not just to what she's fighting for, but how.

Unfortunately, holding fast to the terms of her own protest has only made things more difficult.

Upon joining superclub Olympique Lyonnais FĂ©minin (aka Lyon) in 2014, Hegerberg noticed stark differences between the conditions there and the practices of the Norwegian federation. For years, her women's national team had suffered from a lack of investment, lesser equipment, fewer competent trainers and limited opportunities to use preferred practice fields.

In the film, Hegerberg talks about one occasion years ago when she tried to question a federation bigwig about her team's lack of access to a field when preparing for a major tournament. The boys' and men's sides hadn't qualified for anything in nearly two decades but were still given priority. Before the general director could even answer, Hegerberg's coach jumped in to shut her down, chiding her for even asking.

"I felt there were so [many] things missing," Hegerberg told me of her tenure with the Norwegian team, in an interview prior to the release of the film. "I didn't think the bar was put high enough. I tried to speak about those matters, but when that didn't go well, I tried to lower my voice and fit in the system. That didn't work, either. Then you're left with one choice. You stay in the system and you're not you or you make a choice and move on. It's as easy as that -- also as difficult as that."

She decided to step away from the team. On her way out, she said she gave the Norwegian federation a detailed list of suggestions and demands, hoping that conditions would change for her teammates and for the next generation of players. After several years of speaking up within the system, she had concluded that her perspective wasn't valued and her complaints weren't being taken seriously. She'd had enough.

"It was very important to get it out there that this isn't about a coach or a team," Hegerberg said in the film. "It's about a culture change. It's about a federation that's functioning in such an old-thinking way. It took a train back to the 1800s and stayed there."

She wanted to opt out without drawing focus or making things difficult for fellow national team members, and she trusted the federation when it asked to speak to the media first. Unfortunately, things got messy when federation representatives claimed in their news conference that Hegerberg's move was "a complete surprise" and alleged there were "no prior warnings."

"It could have been worked out so much better than starting a media war," Hegerberg said.

"In the beginning, I got a lot of criticism about not explaining the reasons, because I wanted to stay loyal [to] the feedback I gave to the federation. But how things developed, obviously I had to speak up because how [the federation] communicated was quite awful. And when I spoke up, I also got criticism. So in the end, there's no way around this."

Even in a moment of great revolt, Hegerberg's goal was peace. She wanted to make a statement to the federation to inspire change, and she wanted to remove herself from a situation that wasn't beneficial to her. But she hoped to do it quietly and without bringing the federation shame -- even if shame might have been deserved.

I'm reminded of Colin Kaepernick's protest -- a peaceful, silent and respectful action intended to bring awareness without an attack. In both cases, the response to the protest was louder and more disruptive than the demonstration itself.

The back-and-forth started by the Norwegian federation inspired many in the soccer world to criticize Hegerberg, including some notable U.S. players in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.

In the film, a sound bite features former U.S. men's national soccer team star-turned-analyst Alexi Lalas saying of Hegerberg's absence, "I think it's a cop-out to say, 'Well, I didn't wanna make it public, because I didn't wanna take the attention.' If Messi or Ronaldo did that, we would have the answers, we would know why. Ada, what do you want?"

Former USWNT player Heather O'Reilly, embroiled in her own team's fight for equal pay, is heard saying, "If she was a little bit more specific, she would gather a lot more respect from us."

O'Reilly's reaction might seem shocking, but it speaks to the complexity of Hegerberg's situation.

Hegerberg insists that she has publicly stated what she wants to see change and that she carefully documented her demands and gave them to the federation. In another similarity to Kaepernick, some players and critics feel Hegerberg's protest would be more influential if she continued to state her case, years after making her decision.

"Every time I talk about this topic, it kind of burns and everything goes up again," Hegerberg told me.

Those are flames she'd prefer go cold.

It's her choice to consider her opt-out as a thing of the past, no longer worth discussing, but with silence comes questions.

When I asked if she has kept up with any of the members of Team Norway, which notably includes her sister, Andrine, she said she is in contact with them but that they don't talk about any advancements made by the federation.

"I don't have much insight [into] how things are today, to be honest," Hegerberg told me. "I'm following closely everything happening in the world of football, but I'm not part of the system anymore, so it's very hard for me to say."

I asked if she ever considered trying to fight for change as a group, instead of as an individual, and she requested we not get into the subject. But she did offer this:

"The more and more people you have speaking up," Hegerberg said, "wanting to move the sport into the right direction, the more impact it can have. But it's always a very tough task and a very sensitive thing, because everyone wants to play for the national team and speaking up is not an easy thing. Some side of myself, after everything I've been through, understands that [some] people play on. I have a lot of [respect] for that."

Several high-profile men's soccer players have elected to step away from their national teams to prioritize club play, including Messi and England's Jamie Vardy. The difference, of course, is a wholly different expectation for top women's players to grow the women's game, sacrifice what's best for themselves for the greater good and prioritize the benefit of the next generation.

If every generation is expected to fight for the next and not for themselves, the immediacy of the problem and the needs of current players is repeatedly ignored and progress is allowed to be downright slothful. Transformation often sounds good in principle but doesn't often look perfect in practice. An individual who takes a stand is often met with the kind of criticism lobbed at the likes of Hegerberg and Kaepernick.

While she wants to fight for what's right, Hegerberg also wants and deserves the acclaim that comes with being one of the world's best, and she is keenly aware of how the world sees women with strong opinions.

"Obviously, you want the message to be out in the right way," she told me. "Not to be in an irritating way, but still in a way that people get drawn to it. You can analyze and try to communicate it in all ways possible, and in the end, people will be whining back at you [about] women whining."

It comes back to balance for Hegerberg.

The push and pull of joy and frustration. The back-and-forth of being seen as a charismatic superstar then angry scold. If only she could just get paid to play and talk soccer, like the guys do. The X's and O's, the work she puts into her training, the magic that happens when she steps on a field.

Hegerberg wants the world to know her name because they know her game, not because of her decision to opt out or because of incidents like the Ballon d'Or ceremony.

Back in 2018 when Hegerberg won soccer's top prize, the sports world rightfully pounced on French DJ Martin Solveig for asking her if she would twerk during the awards ceremony. Instead of echoing the frustration, she downplayed the incident, in part because she knew the awkward exchange would distract from the historic honor she had received. And it did.

"The whole night should only have been about the football, but then it's a lot of headlines about this incident," Hegerberg explained. "That's why I kind of focus on, every time I do an interview or every time I'm in public, is to try to speak about my sport and not always about what's so bad about the conditions. I try to balance that, because in the end, I really wanna talk about performance and what's happening on the pitch."

Her obsession with being great is something that isn't talked about as much when discussing her decision to walk away from the Norwegian federation.

It's easy to understand the great sacrifice of not being able to represent her country and not being able to capitalize on the benefits of playing on the biggest stage, but there also is great sacrifice in playing for a team that doesn't value its members. A team that doesn't provide the best working conditions, the best equipment and trainers, the best opportunity to win. Ask the best of the best in any sport what kind of drain it is on their soul to play for a team that doesn't care enough about winning.

In the film, Hegerberg remembers the freedom that came with playing on the boys' teams when she was younger.

"Being a part of the boys' environment, you were allowed to be angry if you lost and pissed at training," Hegerberg said. "That willingness to win, I really liked that. Why is it that you have some expectations [for] girls and some other expectations [for] boys? We are the ones responsible to break all the stigmas about young girls. I think we're made for much more than that."

Hegerberg has done plenty of winning with Lyon, which claimed its fifth straight UEFA Champions League title in August. After tearing her ACL in January, she missed the latest title run, but she still holds Champions League records for most goals all time and most goals in a season. And at 25 years old, she is just getting started.

"I have scary plans for my comeback," she told me when I asked her what's next.

Based on comments in the documentary, it doesn't appear that comeback will involve a return to the Norwegian federation, so it will have to watch from afar as her star gets bigger and her legend grows. Perhaps the federation will continue the progress it has made since she left, so that when the next Ada Hegerberg comes along, it won't lose her too.

As for Hegerberg, she is optimistic about the state of women's soccer.

"The future is bright," she said at the end of the film. "I'm positive."