Ada Hegerberg's Norway boycott shows World Cup has a long way to go
Norwegian star making a stand against the lack of equality for women’s teams
Ada Hegerberg: The Ballon d’Or winner and Olympique Lyonnais and Norway star will miss the greatest showpiece for the women’s game in France. Photograph: Trond Tandberg/Getty Images
In Paris, yes, they call the quarter-pounder “the Royale with cheese” and for the next month they will call the biggest sports tournament in the city “the women’s World Cup”.
That they need to emphasise gender says so much about the ongoing struggle of the women’s game.
Last year in Russia, when the men’s competition took place, it was, of course, simply “the World Cup”.
There was no need to prefix the gender of the tournament: it was just the World Cup . . . the sprawling festival of football which had been enthralling the world every four years since 1930, with its museum of treasured, flickering black and white and then grainy Technicolour images.
And of course there’s also its unapologetic expansion and pursuit of money in recent decades and the ongoing human rights scandal as Qatar, that fabled land of football, prepares for the next version of the competition.
The men’s version has always been the one, the only, ‘the World Cup’ and it is absolutely assured and certain about its place and status as the event around which the rest of the world revolves for the month when it is taking place,
It’s also the planet that has blocked out the sun from women’s football. The 2019 World Cup kicked off last night and tomorrow, when Norway play, much will be made about the absence of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who is boycotting the Norway federation in protest at the absence of equality towards women’s teams.
Her status and influence was enough to immediately prompt the federation to pay its women’s national team players the same as the men’s terms for representing the country – thereby doubling their play.
Hegerberg, without publicly detailing the shortcomings, has insisted that it’s not simply about money and has declined to play for Norway in this World Cup.
Her stance has been well publicised without any real sense of just how sensational it would be if the world’s best player in the men’s game decided to sit out the tournament on ideological grounds (Not now, Roy, not now).
Hegerberg’s spectacular goalscoring rate with her club Olympique Lyonnais – 193 goals in 165 matches – secured her the inaugural Ballon d’Or Feminin.
Dismayingly, the significance of the award was overshadowed by the daft remarks of a French DJ hosting the event who, in a clumsy attempt at on-stage repartee, asked Hegerberg if she was able to twerk.
The clip went viral; comments were outraged and afterwards, Hegerberg was repeatedly asked about those few seconds of stupidity by a presenter rather than about the decade of dedication and practice that had brought her to the pinnacle of the world game.
Hegerberg’s absence from this World Cup is a profound thing; in interviews, she is upbeat about the tournament and sanguine about her own absence.
But imagine the private hurt and frustration she must be experiencing when the tournament takes off and she is watching television. It’s a four-year event and she is at her athletic peak right now; there are no absolute guarantees this chance will come around for her again.
If Lionel Messi, say, had absented himself from last year’s tournament, it’s not all that difficult to imagine civic protests in his native Argentina and a general sense that the tournament would be a bit of a sham in his absence.
But Hegerberg’s protest is the perfect metaphor for a sport in which women have had to drag and haul the all-dominating men’s game out of a mindset locked in the mid-20th century.
And it is a slow and sometimes painful process. Phil Neville, the former Manchester United full back, is the head coach of the England team at this World Cup. His tenure began early last year with a series of apologetic interviews when he was forced to explain old Twitter messages dating back to 2012 which, unbelievably, included the phrase “just battered the wife”.
Neville hastily explained that the phrase was meant in a sporting sense, which it undoubtedly was, but acknowledged that it was a poor choice of banter and had strong connotations of domestic violence. Wisely, L’autre Nev’ then deleted his account.
But that phrase carried echoes of a shocking piece written by Ian Jack in the Guardian in 2011 detailing how domestic violence rates in Glasgow go through the roof (they spike by 138 percent) on those Saturdays when Rangers play Celtic in the city derby.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the cocktail – the boozing, the afternoon in a sulphurous atmosphere of mass male tribalism, a win or a loss, more drinks and finally crashing in through the front door.
For decades, football was ‘for’ men to play, to follow, to watch, to cheer, to let off steam to, to riot to, to know and to understand. It was their church. There’s still a huge cloud of prejudice and it could be that sense that has convinced Hegerberg that if football can’t give a tournament on equal terms, then it’s not worth playing.
During last year’s World Cup television coverage, ITV pundit Patrice Evra was pilloried for applauding a piece of analysis by Eni Aluko, the former England women striker, who had just delivered a deft summary of Costa Rica’s strengths and weaknesses.
Jacqui Oatley (the BBC’s first ever female MOTD commentator) had happened to say, “That’s a perfect link . . .thank you Eni, to talk about the goal scoring prowess of Serbia.” Evra had clearly confused Oatley’s tone of pleasant surprise that Aluko’s closing line led perfectly to her next topic of discussion with his own surprise at Aluko’s accomplished delivery and thus came the stupid gesture, which he came to regret.
And this, remember, was regarded a breakthrough World Cup for women. The main channels were applauding themselves for their enlightenment. Vicki Sparks became the first woman to ever commentate on a World Cup game for British television and Alex Scott and Aluko joined the predominantly male cast of pundits and analysts.
The fact that their presence was regarded as such a breakthrough was, of course, the most damning proof of how far men’s football has to travel in its acknowledgement that women can play and can know football too.
There have already been a few downbeat commentaries about how invisible the World Cup is in Paris this week. The complaint is that there are posters for the French Open everywhere but it’s as if the football tournament isn’t even taking place.
In fairness, when France hosted the men’s Euro 2016 tournament, there was a sense that Paris wasn’t really arsed about it either. The city can be huffy that way. But now that the men’s game has cleared off for a while, this World Cup will be given complete and unbroken coverage on both BBC and here on RTÉ.
It’s a terrific chance for the sport to advertise the best of itself on its own terms and, through the quality of games and the punditry on television, to make a whole new audience reach the point, over the course of the next month, when they are no longer watching women’s football: just football.
The day may come when the equivalent tournament will be known as the Men’s World Cup. It will be much too late for Hegerberg. But when that happens, woman’s football will know that it is getting there.