It has been two years since striker Ada Hegerberg, 23, informed the Norwegian soccer federation that she would not play for her national team until she saw more tangible progress toward equal working conditions and overall support for the women’s program. She has never wavered in that decision, despite some initiatives by Norwegian officials, and will watch the 2019 Women’s World Cup from home this summer.

But it won’t be a vacation, as she told ESPN.com senior writer Bonnie D. Ford earlier this year. Hegerberg’s incandescent talent — honed by her five seasons with superclub Olympique Lyonnais and her solo workouts during breaks for international play — have lifted her to the top of the game, embodied when she hoisted the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or trophy last year. That was before she scored a hat trick within 17 minutes in May to secure Lyon’s fourth consecutive Champions League title. 

ESPN: Given that there isn’t salary parity between men and women, what are the most important details here [in Lyon] that make you feel as if you’re being treated equally?

HEGERBERG: It’s the amount of respect and the fact that we’re equal in terms of conditions, the pitches we have, eating in the same canteen and really taking a part in the club together with the men’s team. People stay here a long time because they love it, they actually have a comfortable life here, and they can live from football and compete at the highest level.

There are some countries with very strong clubs, such as France, that have not succeeded in the World Cup. The United States? Total opposite: great success in the World Cup, and our club system has struggled. Why do you think there’s that disconnect?

In the U.S., they have spent so much more time together in the national team rather than the club. Here it’s different. You have your everyday life in the club, and then you go to the national team maybe once every second month. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how big the World Cup is going to be, and I really hope that happens. But we forget the fact that you have all the interest in a big tournament, then suddenly, bam! You go back to your club, and you have, like, 200 people watching your games. So bringing the buzz from big tournaments into your everyday club life, getting people to show up at your games, that’s important. For example, when we played the final of the 2013 Euros [in Sweden], we played in front of 40,000 people, and some players from Norway were playing in league games the weekend after in front of, like, 200 people. It was a shock — for everyone.

What gave you the mental and emotional strength to make the decision to not play with Norway?

I’m in a club that has standards, and I’m used to that. My family, we’re all about quality, so I put the bar quite high. I demand a lot of things from myself, but then I also demand that everything should be in place around me so that we can succeed.

I was trying to make an impact [on Norway] for a lot of years, and I could see that in this system, in the federation, it didn’t fit me at all. I feel like I was placed in a system where I didn’t have a voice. I felt this weight on my shoulders more and more: This isn’t working. When you’re quite sure about yourself and the values and where you want to go, it’s easy to make difficult choices. For me at that point, being able not to lose myself and not to lose what I believe in, I had to take that choice. I couldn’t go any other way. And as soon as I did it, it was like [exhales], I could be myself again. I could perform on the highest level again.

But those weeks in front of that decision were almost like a depression. It was such a hard thing to do. It can’t be easy when a woman stands and tries to be critical in a positive way. For me, it was really important that [the federation] knew what I was talking about, point by point. When the media asked me what I told the federation, I said, that’s between me and them so they can work on it. But it doesn’t seem like they took it in the way they should have. Ever since, I just put that behind me and try to perform at the highest level with Lyon.

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Then in a cosmic coincidence, Norway winds up in the same group as France. Do you think you’ll follow it closely?

I’m going to watch the World Cup, no doubt. I’ve got a lot of teammates playing. But there’s no emotional connection. I’m totally confident with my decision since day one. It took me to the highest levels, the Ballon d’Or.

I saw the Ballon d’Or trophy downstairs in the club museum. Was it hard for you to give it up?

I was just so afraid of keeping it at my place. I’m going to let it stay here for some time, and one day I’ll bring it home when I get a proper alarm.

How do you view what the U.S. players are doing, suing their federation for equal pay?

They’ve got the guts, and they’re together about it. That’s the next thing. Women need to back women in cases like this, even more than we do today. If each woman stands up and uses her voice, imagine how many voices would be together and how strong a mass that would be. And I feel that responsibility myself as well. Even though sometimes I would be like, [sighs] “Am I really going to take on that fight?” I would always think, but what will it bring for the future, for others? That’s in the back in my head, behind every decision I make. I got this question from a journalist as well: Do you consider yourself a football player or a feminist?

Why do you have to choose?

Yeah! It’s impossible to play football in a world among men and not fight for equality. We’re all feminists. Playing football can be damn harsh, but every day is a fight for equality. That’s a fact. We’ve made it here [in Lyon] because you’ve got one man at the top believing in us. But it’s still a long, long way to go, and you can see it in small examples every day.

We’re still in a time when an insult to a woman can gain more attention than an accomplishment. There’s the question [about twerking] you were asked at the Ballon d’Or presentation.

I didn’t take it as sexist. I just thought it was a really stupid question at a really stupid time. If he’d asked M’bappe that question, they would be like, what is he doing?

It put you in an impossible situation. If you don’t say anything, you’re not strong enough, and if you react strongly, you’re too strong.

Exactly. You can’t say anything without getting consequences. But I always have humor for it as well. You should have balance between humor and what’s not acceptable.

It’s tiring, right?

Sometimes I would call my mom, and I would be so angry. That doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes you see stuff even outside football, and it just goes into me at a certain moment, and it’s like, why? Where is this going to end? Is there a better future? But then I get a grip, and it’s like [exhales], let’s go again.

You have a lot of years ahead. It’s not like it’s the end of your career — knock on wood.

Yeah. [Laughs] But seriously, I want to show what I’m good at, on the pitch and outside the pitch. I never considered myself less worthy than a man in football. Never. Never, never, never. It’s all about changing attitudes.

I understand you like biographies. What’s the last one you read?

It was about Muhammad Ali.

What did you get from that book?

He was a hard-working man. I try to read a lot of women’s biographies as well because I think there are a lot more women out there who are like Alis.

What keeps you hungry?

Improving. And winning. The way I work, I always ask myself: What did go well this year, and what do we need to work on? I always have a plan in my head. I do it with my crew at home, my family and my fiancé, a physical coach, a mental coach. It’s demanding sometimes, even when it goes well. So when the Ballon d’Or came, it was like “Hallelujah!” That was the timing I needed.

The joy of repeating is quite different from the joy of doing something for the first time.

My motivation is staying at the top as long as possible. I know that I’m capable of it. I’ve had some years at the top now, but I know I can continue if I do things right. 





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