Ada Hegerberg takes a step back from international duty: A look at the NFF

When one of the best footballers in the world announces that she’s stepping back from international duty for the foreseeable future it unsurprisingly becomes quite the topic of conversation.

Whilst Ada Hegerberg’s decision to focus on her club football has been heavily discussed in her native Norway there still remains some confusion elsewhere in the world as to her reasoning. 

A lack of respect and deeper rooted problems 

To understand Hegerberg’s gripe you must first understand the ongoing issues with the Norges Fotballforbund (NFF) – issues that the Lyon star hasn’t been shy about talking about, even before this summer.

“It's about respect, and I think women's football does not have the respect it's supposed to have in Norway,” said the star to Aftenposten in an article from last December.

A star in Norway, Hegerberg has remained the NFF’s poster girl, trotted out at every available opportunity to highlight what is possible for Norwegians in world football. Having long since left the Toppserien, Hegerberg has been critical about the lack of money from the NFF to the league – attendances in the men’s Eliteserien at an all-time low whilst attendances for women’s matches can struggle to reach three figures.

In her statement, the strong-willed attacker speaks of wrestling with the decision but ultimately deciding it’s right for her to focus on playing for Lyon where she can continue to develop – still just 22-years-old – the national team not offering her room to grow as a player.

The decision not just a knee-jerk from a disappointing Euros that saw Norway return home without so much as a goal to show for their three group games but from her “experiences over a long period of time.”

Speaking to DN in July, NFF president Terje Svendsen lauded Hegerberg, again holding her up as the poster-girl for football in Norway.

Though Svendsen was one of the ones to vote down a proposal to increase the funding by just under a quarter from 23 to 29 million Norwegian Krone (or from just over £2.5M to just under £3M) – the men currently receive 300M kr (£30M).

Svendsen’s issue was that he wanted the league to be sustainable and not just feeding off of hand-outs, a line Hegerberg disagreed with, stating the without investment the team wouldn’t be able to grow and compete.

The DN article highlighted how different Hegerberg and Svendsen are, but able to leave Norway at a young age and experience life both in the German Frauen-Bundesliga and the French Division 1 Féminine, Hegerberg understands what investment can do.

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Discontent amongst the fans  

Whilst there’s been recent disputes with federations over treatment of their women’s teams such as Scotland and the Republic of Ireland earlier in the year as well as the DBU and Danish team currently disagreeing over a new deal, there’s been little about unrest with the NFF.

And, whilst it’s true that the players haven’t come out and lodged a complaint about the federation, there is a general feeling among the Norwegian public that the NFF needs new leadership with the likes of parody Twitter @fotballforbund keen to poke fun and investigative paper Josimar deeply unhappy with the status quo.

There exists a growing feeling among fans of Norwegian football that those in positions of power are more interested in lining their pockets than growing football at home or putting out a strong national team.

Ousting Egil Olsen to bring in Per-Mathias Høgmo still a sore point in the minds of fans - the Norwegian [men’s] team having fallen to their lowest ever ranking of #88 under Høgmo.

But what is the state of play in the Toppserien?

So far this season there have been six matches that have had less than 100 fans at them (the lowest being Sandviken vs Kolbotn in June with an attendance of 54) and one match that has hit four figures (Sandviken vs Medkila in August with 1,009 but it was a complete outlier).

The regular attendance for any team is usually around the 200 or 300 fans mark, the league criminally undermarketed and underfunded. With the Damallsvenskan booming next door in Sweden and highly regarded as one of the best leagues in the world, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that the Toppserien could become something similar.

Yet in its 33rd season the league still struggles in most respects, something that could easily be remedied with a little vision and effort from the federation.

Whilst Eliteserien fixtures are prone to being moved around and not finalised until only a few weeks before each match, there is considerably less upheaval on the women’s side, several teams already having the convenience of playing indoors for when the weather gets too treacherous.

Much like its Swedish neighbour, Norwegian football is based more in the technical, the national team historically successful but as world football has evolved, the Toppserien has been left behind to stagnate.

With this in mind it’s no surprise to see so many Norwegian internationals leaving the league in droves, looking for a professional environment to grow (such as Hegerberg and sister Andrine, Caroline Graham Hansen, Maren Mjelde and Kristine Minde to mention a few).

One of the more damning news pieces to fly under the radar this summer was that of Avaldsnes (second placed in the league for the last two seasons running) resorting to crowd-funding to pay for their trip to Montenegro for the qualifying stage of the UWCL.

Setting a target of 50,000kr (around £5,000) Avaldsnes were able to reach their goal and travel to Montenegro, and will once again be competing in Europe after topping their qualifying group.

It may be worth noting at this particular juncture that Norway was listed as the sixth richest country in the world in 2016 and the second best team in the Norwegian league very nearly didn’t have a chance of qualifying for the biggest domestic competition in Europe because of a measly £5,000.

Two collide, Hegerberg for Lyon away to Avaldsnes making their UWCL debut last season (Credit: Scanpix/Jan Kåre Ness)
Two collide, Hegerberg for Lyon away to Avaldsnes making their UWCL debut last season (Credit: Scanpix/Jan Kåre Ness)

Klaveness defence 

One of the more interesting and balanced articles that has come out on the situation is a well thought out piece from former Norwegian international, Lise Klaveness. Talking to NRK during the 2015 World Cup, Klaveness recalled a time in training when a young Hegerberg ran past her teammates, yelling at them to do better.

Even then, at just 16, Hegerberg wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and do what she considered best for herself and her team. The memories are shared by former Norway captain, Ingvild Stensland who has stated that from what she understands of the situation, Hegerberg has done little wrong and understands her frustration. 

[It is important to note at this point, that this frank openness isn’t typical of all Norwegians, but rather a more regional quirk and that has only contributed to the fall-out].

Back in the now, in Klaveness’ (lengthy but thoroughly worthwhile) piece for NRK, the former player highlights not just the NFF’s attempts at smearing the 22-year-old but that she has been singled out.

In taking a step back from the national team, Hegerberg has done no worse than Alex Tettey or Per Ciljan Skjelbred in the last year – or even Isabell Herlovsen when she moved to Chinese club Jiangsu Suning and announced she wouldn’t be available for selection.

Even in 2008 when five title-winners from Røa declined a call-up siting not least the management of Bjarne Berntsen and issues with the NFF but a lack of “takhøyde” (room to express oneself), an issue shared by Hegerberg, little was said.

As pointed out by Klaveness, Hegerberg had stated her dissatisfaction with the progress of the team after their final friendly ahead of the Euros – so her decision to step back should not have been the surprise it was, a storm brewing under the surface for a while. A fact that makes Martin Sjögren’s comment that the decision “came like lightening from clear skies,” all the stranger.

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Worst European Championships in Norway’s history 

Whilst Norway labour and wheezed to an unhappy conclusion in the Netherlands, Hegerberg looked equally as out of place, not at home in the system and failing to connect with her teammates on the pitch.

Klaveness asks why she consistently played when it was clear that it simply wasn’t working, with rumoured issues off of the pitch too, the question arises of whether she was played simply because of who she is.

With one Hegerberg looking out of place on the pitch, there was another sat on the bench forced to watch on, unable to affect play. In the wake of Hegerberg Jr’s announcement there were more reports and rumours of a fall-out in the Norway camp during the tournament, whether they hold water or not, the word put out was a displeasure that her sister was benched.

As a reporter as all of Norway’s matches in the Netherlands, I was left wondering why Andrine had been left out of the starting XI and more importantly why she wasn’t brought on at any point during the loss to the hosts in the opening game, her skill-set exactly what Norway needed.

Conspicuously absent from Sjögren’s newest squad, Hegerberg Snr even took to Twitter to state that she, unlike her sister, has not withdrawn from consideration. Strong-minded like her younger sister, the Hegerbergs have a strong sense of self, and aren’t afraid to speak up, the family a close-knit one.

Whilst it would be hyperbolic to suggest that her absence is in some way linked to her sister’s decision to step back, the link has been drawn by other commentators and fans – the NFF carrying a low estimation in the minds of many.

A player whose career has followed a similar path to Hegerberg's is Wolfsburg winger Caroline Graham Hansen who, at first was surprised by the news. Another who left the Norwegian league at a young age to pursue professional football elsewhere in Europe, Hansen stated that she had personally never wavered on whether or not to play to Norway, happy to wear the national shirt for as long as she is fit and needed.

However, when speaking to NRK the following week, Hansen was diplomatic saying that whilst the Norwegian team didn’t have really have enough money their situation was better than other nations.

More forthcoming in her more recent interview, Hansen was clear on the fact that the NFF needed to do much better; once more the level of funding was raised.

Aware that the structure at home isn’t one that will foster the best development for players, Hansen went to on suggest cooperation between the federation and players to help them move abroad – but with the NFF anything that requires money, seems very much a no-go.

Hegerberg left with no choice

In Norway, we all like that everyone should drink milk and eat crackers and be the same,” were the words of NRK correspondent and former personal-coach of Hegerberg, Tom Nordlie. Once again the culture of nodding politely and not raising your voice brought up, again going some way to explaining the level of fall-out in Norway over the announcement.

In one of her first interviews after the news broke, Hegerberg spoke to Aftenposten at length, “Det er for dårlig kommunikasjon. Det er for lav takhøyde. Det snakkes hele tiden om takhøyde, takhøyde, men det er vanskelig å ha en stemme.

Once again “takhøyde” the go to, rueing bad communication and a serious lack of room for self-expression, Hegerberg states that it’s, “hard to have a voice.”

Saying that she simply does not fit in, Hegerberg believes it’s best for all that she step aside. Further on in the interview, she strongly refutes that her decision has anything to do with her sister and her lack of playing time at the Euros. And, aware that just like the rest of the team, she herself was below par.

Initially wanting not to say any more on the matter past her initial statement, Hegerberg felt that she needed to speak up when she saw the statements put out by the NFF, the striker left to comment on the federation’s lack of self-reflection.

Communications Director Svein Graff unsurprisingly disagrees that the federation have done anything wrong. In her last words in the article Hegerberg once again wished Norway success in World Cup qualification – as she did in her initial statement – and admits that at present she doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to the team.

If there is a real change in the NFF then Hegerberg is optimistic about a return but after the fall-out and snap-response from the federation she laments that it doesn’t seem likely.