“It was of course very special to make a debut in the first league at such a young age and it was a good debut for myself and from there it was always about being the best I could be and see how far I could go.”
It’s raining in La Manga as Caroline Graham Hansen is talking about the first time she took to a pitch in the Toppserien, the highest level of women’s football in Norway, aged just 15. Although well known in her native Norway and so too in Germany where she currently plays for VfL Wolfsburg, the talented 21-year-old winger might not be as known to others around the world, her career already stuttered and halted by serious injuries. But currently in Spain for a training camp with her national team under new coach Martin Sjögren, Hansen is looking forward to returning to full fitness and feeling a lush pitch beneath her boots once again.
Norway to Sweden and back again
After three years with Stabæk, Hansen made a short-term switch to Sweden’s Damallsvenskan to play in a team of galaticos at Tyresö, “It was a decision I made to go to Sweden and at the time they had a lot of good players and a good coach, I was only there for three months but it was a good experience to have, to live abroad and feel what it was like away from home at a young age.”
Although not afforded a great deal of time on the pitch in a team with the likes of Marta and Christen Press, Hansen still had an impact in the side, as deadly in front of goal as she had been in Norway. Financial instability coupled with the desire to finish her studies signalled the end of Hansen’s Swedish stint and the eighteen year old promptly returned back to Oslo and Stabæk, “As people found out when it came out later, it maybe wasn’t the best environment for a young player because it was unstructured and they had financial problems so I made the decision to go home and finish school. The players and people there were fantastic but it just wasn’t the right club at the right time for me. And it was very important to me to get my high school diploma so I can study whatever I want in later life and be whatever I want to be.”
With her high school diploma in the locker, Hansen was once again able to move abroad to continue her love-affair with football, although the creative attacker doesn’t quite know what she wants to do after she hangs up her boots she’s glad that she can go straight to the next. However, she admits all she wants to do right now is be fit enough to play, “My goal is just to get fit again, I’ve had a lot of issues with injuries and my career kind of stopped for a while but I know what I can do and I just want to have the ball at my feel and have fun with it. I want to have a few seasons and when I’m ready I might start to study on the side too but I’m not too stressed about it; this is my work, this is my life and I’m just enjoying it.”
After leaving Norway once more Hansen headed for another of the most competitive leagues in the world when she moved to the Frauen Bundesliga and Wolfsburg, the German style foreign to the Norwegian: “It’s really different from what I’m used to in Norway, the training and game mentality is just so different and it’s been a big step to take, I’ve learnt a lot about myself and what it takes to be the best. I get to train with the best and be around the best coaches, we’ve got one of the best staffs around us, it’s been so fantastic that I’ve gotten to play there and I’m just so grateful that I get to push myself everyday amongst those players, it’s an honour.”
Playing for one of the most recognisable teams in Europe, Ralf Kellermann’s Wolves are one of the most multinational sides in Germany, and Hansen gets to play and train around not just players from Germany, France, Switzerland and Hungary but from her native Scandinavia too, a small detail that helps the far-flung winger feel at home: “It’s comforting to have people you can talk to in your own language in a place that’s so far from home, it’s really nice."
On her way back from her third major injury, Hansen has struggled not just physically but mentally over the last few years and she admits it’s been very challenging but she’s ultimately a stronger person for it: “My first major injury came from doing too much training, over time it has destroyed my patella.”
An ambitious young footballer always striving for more, Hansen learned fast that if she was to become one of the best she was going to have to do everything the right way, “That’s all fine now but it was something to go through the rehab and make a statement that I want to play football but I want to do it healthy. I want to be fit when I’m playing, it’s no fun to play at 19 and be in pain all the time so I had to say, 'the World Cup comes later, for now I have to be fit.' I knew I’d never reach my potential if I continued on with how my knee was then.
“I came back and felt great, made a good comeback but then I had another bad injury, a different one this time, but it was my knee again. Then I came back again after the summer break and I’d been practicing all summer, I played until October but then it happens again; another injury. You can’t prevent that kind of injury, it’s part of the sport, it’s part of football, it sucks but after the first and second injuries I learned a lot about how you have to cope with them mentally.”
Missing out on playing in Europe’s biggest domestic competition was almost the nail in the coffin for Hansen, her passion for football veiled by rehab and games missed. “Of course there’s been really tough times, you’re far away from home, you don’t get to play, it was really tough to miss out on playing in the Champions League final; I don’t think I’d ever been so sad in my life. I really struggled just to get back after that, it was hard to find the love of the game, I struggled in myself with enjoying the sport.”
Recovering from a hairline fracture in her leg, Hansen coped with her latest injury well, aware that she wasn’t set to miss any big big games and would be back in plenty of time to help Wolfsburg not just in the UWCL but in the league season too, “But I got back and I was enjoying football again, in a good flow so I was in a positive mindset when I got the latest injury and I knew I wasn’t going to lose the whole season and I’ll still be able to take part and help the team in the Champions League and to reach our goals this season.
“It was harder when I knew I would be missing out on the finals, when it’s everything you’d worked so hard for all year, all the suffering and pain you go through to get there and then to miss out, that was the hardest part for me.”
Older, more experience and more mature than when she had her first injury lay-off Hansen has even more love for the sport than ever before, willing to take her time and make sure she doesn’t rush her come back, “I’d say that I’ve come out of the three injuries stronger mentally, with more love for the game, and I just want to be the best I can be even if it means being patient and taking more time.”
Hansen’s simple mantra – and her advice for any other young footballers struggling with injury – is one well repeated over the world, “Be patient, don’t stress over the situation, shitty things do happen, you just have to accept it and find your own motivation. Don’t think about all the things you’re going to lose and everything you have to do to come back because it will be a really long and hard journey; if you look at it like 'I have to do this and this and this and this…' you’ll never make it, but if you just take it day by day, step by step and don’t put so much thought into it, take every day as it comes. That’s the best advice I can give.”
Going back, long before Wolfsburg, Tyresö, Stabæk and even Lyn (where Hansen spent her youth career, developing as a force to be reckoned with), the winger from Norway was always happiest a football pitch, “I’ve always had a special relationship with football, as a three of four year old I didn’t really have any interests but suddenly it all clicked for me and I knew this was what I wanted to do from a really young age.
"I was lucky as I had a father who always wanted to help me along the way and when you have parents who will drive you around and make sure you get everything you need to help you on your way to pursue your dreams it makes it easier. But you still have to put all the work in, I’d spend hour after hour on the pitch on my own or with my father or friends just training and training. But I’ve always had an inner drive to become a good footballer from a young age.”
After finding her passion in the sport, Hansen developed a love for Manchester United as the Red Devils continued to blossom under Sir Alex Ferguson, but her inspiration to be the best comes mostly from within, the greatest footballers of her time merely peers she can learn from: “I’ve always been a big Manchester United supporter, when I was ten Ronaldo was 18 when he came to United so he’s always been a big inspiration with his work-ethic, then you’ve got Messi with his almost magical style and Neymar who’s a younger player but he keeps up with them. And then there’s still Iniesta and Pirlo and Zidane… I’m always been a football geek and I love to watch good football, I can’t say I’ve picked up on anyone’s specific style but I’ve been inspired by so many. And if I see a cool trick I try it out myself or use my imagination to try out and combine things.”
Uncomfortable about being labelled the Next X or the Female Y, Caroline Hansen has only ever been focused on being the best Caroline Hansen she can be, “I don’t think you can really compare me to anybody because I’ve never compared myself to anybody.”
A consumer as well as a player, Hansen admits she’s not the best at following other leagues around the world and rues the lack of solid coverage, “I’m really bad a paying attention to other women’s leagues, I wish I was better but there’s not good TV coverage of our sport, it’s not like you can tune in every week on Sky or Eurosport and watch games, or even just goods. It’s hard to find the games and that’s sad because it’s good football being played in England and Spain and Germany and France but you can’t just find a link and watch it.”
Sun, speed, favourites and histrionics
Happy at Wolfsburg and not looking to leave Lower Saxony just yet, Hansen longs for a warmer climate, “I’d love to play in the sun the whole year, the German weather is mean to the soul in the winter. I’d love to play in Barcelona or somewhere in the sun but I know at the moment the Spanish league isn’t the level I want to be playing at. There’s France with somewhere like Lyon but they already have a world class player in every position so it would be a hard place to go.”
Widely known to English women’s football fans, Hansen’s Manchester United don’t have a women’s team and the winger can’t imagine herself ever trooping another English team’s colours: “I know in England they recently switched the calendar to try to grow the game and build a good league, maybe in the future – I love English football and the passion English fans have. It would be a dream to play at feel that atmosphere, I’ve seen what it’s like when they play finals at Wembley Stadium and I have the same relationship with English football as I think English people have with it. Obviously Manchester City and Chelsea are the two big teams but it’s hard to imagine putting on either of those jerseys when I’ve been a United fan for so long.”
On the topic of super powers, the 21 year-old drew her inspiration from Pixar, “I’d be super fast like Dash from the Incredibles. You don’t need a car or anything, everything is just easy you can just move so easily, so fast in split-seconds, faster than light; so I would be Dash.”
When it comes to her favourite moment, the silver Norway secured at the 2013 European Championships is the one that resonates the most, the then 18 year-old played every second of the final and although was disappointed to go come away with the trophy still has fond memories of the day, “I’ve had many good moments but I think the last Euros were really special, I was still young and I had young ambitions and courage. I don’t think anyone really believed in us but we believed in ourselves, it was devastating to lose the final and I had a feeling we were going to win but it didn’t happen. But just to play in a Euro final, when you think about it later we took silver and that’s still a big thing.”
No stranger to a goal, Hansen admits the favourite that she’s scored has pride of place in her memories for more geographical reasons and she could think of no better places to score than the Ullevaal Stadion, “The one against Belgium was probably my favourite. I was basically playing in my own backgarden, my home town club play there and my whole life, every Sunday I was there and my big dream was to play on that pitch and the first time I did, I scored.”
From favourites to what she dislikes most about the sport, when pressed Hansen admitted that the theatrics are something she’d like to see gone from the game, “Players who dive and unfair on the pitch, they have no interest in playing football they lay on the ground pretending to have injuries they don’t have. If I had the option I’d send them off of the pitch, it’s so unsportsmanlike to prove things that aren’t there to get other people carded. I get really provoked when I think about players who pretend to be injured because I know what it’s like when you are injured and those who do it to get others in trouble… I don’t like it.”
Big things on the horizon
Coming back to the now and her return with Wolfsburg, Hansen is metamorphically licking her lips at the chance to take to the pitch again but especially with a replay of the 2015-16 UWCL final on the cards in March, “We’ll really get to measure ourselves against super-team Lyon. I just want to be fit and play against them, we’ll have two great games and the atmosphere will be great. I know we’ll be well prepared for this game and put a great team out there and hopefully turn the tie in our favour.
"They’re a great team and it will be hard for us but we’ll make it hard for them too, it’s just a shame it’s the quarter final and not later in the competition but that’s how it is when the seeding is how it is and if we want to win the competition we have to play the best teams.”
From domestic to international, although she knew she wouldn’t be playing in either of the La Manga friendlies, Hansen (and her teammates) have had plenty of time with their new coach and it’s clear the wily winger from Oslo is on board with her new coach and can’t wait to pull on her Norway jersey again: “This week has been incredibly good with Martin and his staff they are really ambitious coaches with a really straight-forward plan, they know how we want to get to our goals and we’ll do it in our own time.
"The Euros aren’t our biggest goal, the World Cup and the Olympics are we’re going to take the steps we need to, to be the best we can be when it comes to the Euros but long-term they have a really good plan for how we’re going to play and how we’re going to reach our goals. They fit our style well and I think we finally have what we’re seeking, it all feels right.”