When Ada Hegerberg's name was called by Norwegian manager Martin Sjögren as one of the 23 players who would be on hand to face Kosovo and Poland in their World Cup qualifiers in April, the women's football world collectively let out a delighted sigh.
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Norwegian football's prodigal daughter was returning after having refused to play with her national team for five years -- and just like that, Norway were a team to be watched at the 2022 European Championships.
The story of Hegerberg's absence from her national team is a complex one; so too is her choice to return. Now that she's back, Norway's chances at the Euro 2022 this summer are boosted, but success is still no certainty.
Why a star walked away from Norway
Hegerberg's journey back to the national team begins in 2017 with disappointment at the Euros. Eyes bloodshot and shoulders slumped, Norway players trudged through the mixed zone in Deventer, one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands and a host of the Euro 2017 group stage. The players' bodies were like painted canvas, displaying the defeat they had just suffered on the pitch.
Much more than just a disappointing 90 minutes that culminated in a loss, it had been Norway's third in a row: they played 270 minutes without a point or goal to show for their endeavours. It was just the second time in Norway's history that they had failed to progress from the group stage at a European Championships -- but this failure carried far more ignominy after the team had been one of the favourites to go all the way.
This was a nation of incredible footballing prowess in the women's game that reached the first-ever Women's World Cup final, losing to the USA before righting that wrong four years later when they won the tournament. This was a nation that seemingly without trying had produced a string of world-class footballers, a golden generation that just seemed to keep going. Even when Hege Riise retired, Isabell Herlovsen was coming through, followed by Hegerberg -- like trying to slay Medusa, cutting off one head would get you nowhere. For a country of 5.5 million, it's almost unfathomable how many elite stars Norway has produced, and all of them with little direction from their federation.
So when Norway fell at the group stage of a Euros for just the second time in their history, the team looked lost, committing glaring errors everywhere across the pitch. It wasn't just a simple case of lacking an incisive edge, either, but a team in disarray under Martin Sjögren. That 2017 team appeared to be in free-fall when, less than two months later, Hegerberg announced she was stepping back from the national team.
At 22 years old, Hegerberg, the attacker from Sunndalsøra, was easily recognisable as one of the best in the world. She had won everything with her club team, Olympique Lyonnais, she could change games, offer goals and bring a breathless winner's mentality to the team -- and she didn't want to play for Norway anymore.
Like her teammates, Hegerberg had the utmost respect for the Norway badge, for those who had come before and felt the honour of being able to represent her country. This wasn't a child throwing the toys out of the pram because she didn't get her way in the Netherlands -- the comments she had made about the team in the years building up had been a series of red flags raised by players, yet ignored by those in charge.
She spoke of the nightmares she suffered and not being able to sleep after coming back from camp. She was a player broken -- that is what playing for Norway had done to her. The treatment of the team, and all women's football in Norway, by the federation, the approach of those in power in the Norges Fotballforbund (NFF) all combined to make Hegerberg's decision an inevitable one. She could not continue playing for Norway, for a nation that treated women's football as the NFF did, nor continue representing a team that left her mentally broken after camps.
As evidence of what the burdens of the national team had done to her, once Hegerberg lifted that weight from her shoulders and found room to breathe, her club football continued to improve, going on to win the first women's Ballon d'Or in 2018 without international football.
Ahead of the 2019 World Cup, tongues began to wag again: where was Ada? Would we see Ada back in the squad? What about Ada? Of course not; there was no need to drag Hegerberg back into the conversation when her stance had not changed, the focus repeatedly pulled from those in the squad who had qualified and would be there.
A changing world around Hegerberg
At the start of 2020, with Lyon in their closest league title fight with Paris Saint-Germain in their history, the focus for Hegerberg was locked on domestic success but whilst preparing to face Stade de Reims at the end of January, the striker went down. She suffered a ruptured ACL and it would be start of a 21-month spell on the sidelines as she suffered a stress fracture not long after returning to the training pitch, further delaying her return.
It was a time when the world suddenly took on a completely different appearance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With global uncertainty the new backdrop, Hegerberg started to come back to fitness and in those months, more and more things began to change. Back in Norway, for the first time in their 120-year history, the NFF elected a female president in the shape of Lise Klaveness.
The former national player knew all too well about some of the less positive reasons to play for Norway -- Klaveness had even been dismissed and told she'd never play for Norway again by then-coach Bjarne Berntsen at 1 a.m. at Oslo Airport after the team returned from the 2007 World Cup in China. Far more than just an accomplished player, Klaveness was a trained lawyer and had been a pundit in Norwegian football from the age of 23. In her role as a commentator, she had even backed the striker after Hegerberg's initial statement in 2017, showing an understanding of the nuances.
Taking on a job within the NFF in 2018, Klaveness would be in contact with Hegerberg over the next four years, trying to resolve the issues that the attacker had highlighted both within the team and the wider landscape of women's football in Norway. For so many who had spent years champing at the bit to see Hegerberg return to the Norwegian fold, they were blind to the positive impact she had behind the scenes. Even just in the wake of the Euro exit in 2017 and the announcement of her stepping back, it prompted the team to be honest with themselves: a review was conducted and many in the group echoed some of Hegerberg's grievances.
To say that her ACL tear and broken leg, both of which took her away from the pitch for so long, sealed her return would be incorrect, just like saying it was the aftermath of the pandemic or just seeing Klaveness named as NFF president. It was a mix of all these factors and likely others.
Hegerberg is older now and like so many of us, she has been forced into a healthy spell of self-reflection over the past two-and-a-half years. As she has said multiple times since returning from her injury, she has a deeper appreciation for playing. Feeling "like a kid again" when she plays and trains, the years away from her national team had left a hole in her heart despite her decision to step back being the right one.
Hegerberg's return: From a team in free fall to Euro 2022 favourites?
When Hegerberg returned to Norway after 1,683 days' voluntarily exile from the team and scored a hat trick against Kosovo, she looked as if she had never been away. Found by Caroline Graham Hansen, Julie Blakstad and Ingrid Syrstad Engen for the goals during those March Euros qualifiers, Hegerberg scored with the same precision she showed with her club team, Lyon. And with those goals, Norway fast went from being a footnote in Group A to being a Euro 2022 front-runner.
But of course, even without Hegerberg, the squad on paper boasts tremendous quality. Chief among them is Barcelona's enigmatic winger, Graham Hansen, the attacker who's grown not just since her move to Spain, but also since taking on extra responsibilities with Norway in Hegerberg's absence. Graham Hansen had become the face of the team in Hegerberg's absence -- she had felt the weight on her shoulders of being the poster girl for the nation and she had been the one, for almost five years, who carried the team both on and off the pitch.
Born 142 days apart, Hegerberg and Graham Hansen had played alongside each other at Stabæk in the Toppserien and rose through the youth ranks of the Norwegian underage teams together, the two players who had been Norway's best for so long. Two different footballing styles, two different personalities, an Oslovian and a Sunndaling, formed the ying and yang of Norway's attack. It's not just the prospect of seeing Hegerberg back for Norway that delights fans, but of seeing Hegerberg and Graham Hansen combining for the first time in almost five years, the two so often pitted against each other in the Champions League.
Outside of Graham Hansen, there's Guro Reiten who, despite having been in top form for Chelsea and confidently being one of the best players in Norway when she was at LSK and Trondheims-Ørn, had never really found her place in the Norway squad -- another red flag to add to the growing tally. So too was the inspired midfielders of Syrstad Engen, Vilde Bøe Risa and Frida Maanum, a trio of well-tested players with tons of experience at the club level.
The defence, lead by the adaptable Maren Mjelde, was the biggest concern and a long-term one at that, but Sjögren has had more options with younger players breaking through, offering more at the back than their predecessors who had been haphazardly thrown into the backline. There has been more than enough talent in the midfield and attack to keep this team as favourites on paper -- however, when push came to shove, it was always Graham Hansen leading the team, being the difference-maker, the inspiration, the collective balance never quite right.
But of course, there are other players in and around the team who could show their quality. Amalie Eikeland and Karina Sævik, who had brief cameos at the last World Cup, have turned in the type of fleeting appearances that make those watching wring their hands and whimper, "why didn't they start?"
Top stars, but a lack of cohesion for Norway
The Football Girls -- as the Norwegian women's national team is known -- qualified for the Euros largely without Hegerberg or much fuss, their group consisting of Wales, Northern Ireland, Belarus and Faroe Islands. But against tougher, higher-ranked opposition, there was still a disjointed quality to their play.
Maybe just having Hegerberg in the squad will guarantee goals if they can get the ball to her during the Euros -- it sounds simple enough until you consider their last Euro warm-up game away to Denmark, when Graham Hansen and Hegerberg were both frequently dropping into the Danish half just to try to get near the ball. Even with such a gloriously talented team and the two unquestionable stars together again in the staring XI, the disjointedness continued as it had for years.
Even with Hegerberg back, what Norway lack (and have lacked for years) is team cohesion and balance across the pitch. Both Hegerberg and Graham Hansen are two of the best players in Europe, but they are still only two against 11. All those talented midfielders and attackers around the pair have consistently failed to find their best football for Norway. The system Sjögren plays, one that never seems to get the best from his players and has recently been under scrutiny in Norway, doesn't seem to be working. although Graham Hansen has rebuffed the criticism.
It is hard to argue that this Norway team hasn't underperformed in recent years, some of which had been highlighted as off-the-pitch problems by Hegerberg, but as for what has happened on it? The sense of being shortchanged has remained when watching Norway, like watching a tribute band when you had expected the real thing: the songs are recognisable, even though the lead singer can't quite hit the high notes.
There is still a chance for Hegerberg, Graham Hansen or Reiten scoring for Norway, the team winning matches and progressing out of their group, but the moniker of dark horses, even for all the glittering history of this nation and its star quality in attack, feels far too generous.
Maybe Norway, like so many others at this Euros, are Schrödinger's Team -- before you open the box or kick a ball, they have fallen at the first hurdle as much as they have reached the final. For Norway, the lid will be lifted on July 7 against Northern Ireland, the Scandinavians facing the lowest-ranked nation at the Euros, the only team to be making their tournament debut. If there was ever a match to get a good feeling into the side and begin to build momentum, this is it for Norway, the antithesis of their first match in Utrecht five years ago.
The biggest positive -- the silver that has lined the heavy storm clouds that have hung over Hegerberg, the NFF and the Norwegian women's national team for the last five years -- are the changes being made and implemented by the federation to improve conditions for women and girls playing football. The treatment and opportunities in Norway are far better for the stand Hegerberg took in 2017, for the change she helped bring about, and no matter what happens this summer, nothing can diminish that success.