“She wants to put her name in lights,” sings rapper Ms Banks at the start of the fast-moving BBC trailer promoting coverage of this summer’s Women’s World Cup. Then the camera pauses to show a shirt marked HEGERBERG 14 hanging on a rack.
It is the shirt of Ada Hegerberg, the world’s best female footballer, and it is hanging on the rack because that is where the Norwegian intends to leave it when the tournament kicks off in Paris on June 7.
The BBC’s cryptic message is, perhaps, that while this will be the biggest women-only sports event in history, followed around the globe by millions on conventional and social media, Hegerberg’s absence highlights the long road still to be travelled in pursuit of sporting gender equality.
It is not unknown for great footballers to miss World Cups. The Dutchman Johan Cruyff, regarded by many as one of the best and most influential players in history, skipped the 1978 World Cup because, he said decades later, his family had endured a kidnapping attempt and he did not want to leave them.
George Best never played in one because his country, Northern Ireland, was not good enough to qualify. One of Hegerberg’s rivals as best female player, Pernille Harder, will not be in France as Denmark failed to qualify.
Hegerberg’s absence is different. She won’t be there because she is at odds with the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) and, while specifics are vague, the core of the dispute is an issue prominent in the women’s game – lack of respect from the people she describes as “the men in suits”.
The 23-year-old, crowned BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year last week, days after her hat-trick won Lyon a fourth successive Women’s Champions League title, is used to being patronised. Almost every woman who works in football has experienced this. But no one else has been asked on live television, when receiving a major international award, if she “twerked”, as Hegerberg was at the Ballon D’Or Féminin presentation in December.
After a storm of outrage, that incident blew over. The culprit, French DJ Martin Solveig, made an apology of sorts and the beneficial byproduct was a debate about casual sexism, with increased awareness of the award and Hegerberg’s stature. The row with the NFF has not been so easy to defuse.
Hegerberg stepped away from her national team after Euro 2017, at which Norway flopped badly. Results, though, were just a symptom of a greater ailment. Hegerberg had expressed dissatisfaction with the NFF beforehand. Even after a change of manager and several meetings, the Lyon forward, scorer of 38 goals in 66 internationals, has not been coaxed back.
On the face of it, women international footballers in Norway, one of the more egalitarian nations, have a good deal, with basic pay equal to men’s. However, that initiative was driven by the men’s team, not the federation. It is understood that many of Hegerberg’s complaints relate to the wider structure of Norwegian women’s football, from the grassroots to the national league, Toppserien, whose sponsorship by OBOS, a housing co-operative, appears to have happened despite the NFF rather than because of it.
No doubt Hegerberg has been influenced by her experience in club football. Being at a club that treats men and women the same – the Lyon squad flew by charter to the Champions League final in Budapest, and were met by the team bus that had driven to meet them from France – Hegerberg has seen what real equality can look like.
Her stand, however, has now reached a stage where some of her team-mates, who may be frustrated that so much attention is focused on a player who is not playing, seem to be ambivalent about her return. Caroline Graham Hansen, who has just joined Barcelona, was asked if Hegerberg would be welcomed back “with open arms”. Her reply was equivocal, noting only that “it is a hypothetical situation”.
Hegerberg is unmoved. “It would be easy for me to perform, do my thing, and stay quiet,” she told the BBC, but she has never taken the soft option. As a child, backed by her parents, both football coaches, she was fiercely competitive. There are stories of her swearing at her manager after being substituted, of bawling out team-mates a decade older, of cycling home in tears after a defeat. At 17 she moved to the German club Turbine Potsdam, combining playing with schoolwork. It was, she said, brutal and after training she was so tired “I would pass out on my bed at seven o’clock with my homework scattered everywhere”.
The hard work paid off. A rough estimate of her earnings, including endorsements, might be £350,000 a year – roughly what an equivalent male superstar would earn in a week. Now she is a star she wants to use her status. “Having all this success gives you a voice,” she said. “It’s never been about me. It’s about getting the change for our sport. It should motivate a lot of others too. We’re all in this together.”
Women footballers have long been treated as second-class citizens. England’s squad are full-time professionals, but senior players like Jill Scott can recall paying their own expenses and fitting matches and training around jobs. Earlier teams had hand-me-down men’s kit and even slept on a gym floor at a major tournament.
That generation was grateful just to be playing, mindful of the fact women’s football was banned in most of Europe from the 1920s to the 1970s. The modern generation is no longer prepared to put up with it.
In the past few years Australian and Danish players have gone on strike, Ireland’s revealed that they had to share tracksuits with the male youth team (only changing in airport toilets before away matches), and Brazilian players quit after their first female coach was sacked far more hastily than her male predecessor.
How about the United States, home of the World Cup holders and probably the best competition, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)? The national team are currently suing their own federation in an effort to secure equal pay with the men (who failed to qualify for the World Cup). US Soccer brought in a regulation to stop leading player Megan Rapinoe “taking a knee” in support of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick; and two leading young players went overseas rather than be drafted to New Jersey’s Sky Blue because training, travel and accommodation was substandard.
Elsewhere, matters are worse, sometimes much worse. The Nigerian team, after winning the 2016 African Women’s Cup of Nations, refused to leave their hotel in Abuja until back pay and bonuses were forthcoming. The stand-off, accompanied by players protesting outside parliament on budget day, lasted 13 days before being settled by government intervention. However, the Super Falcons did not play again for more than a year.
Jamaica will be at the World Cup, but only because Bob Marley’s daughter funded the team after the national federation abandoned them. Saudi Arabia reached the men’s 2018 World Cup but does not run a women’s team, one of 56 nations whose women either do not play or compete so rarely that Fifa, the world governing body, does not give them a ranking.
Most sinister of all, in Afghanistan the football federation’s president has been suspended by his own government and Fifa following allegations of sexual abuse and violence, including the rape of players.
Fifa, after a time when its most notable statement was a suggestion by disgraced former president Sepp Blatter that players should wear tighter shorts, has finally begun taking positive steps, including funding for national associations to support women’s programmes that is, in theory, ring-fenced.
There are, however, slip-ups. The total World Cup prize money has been doubled to $30 million with $4 million for the winner, but larger increases for the men’s game actually increased the gender gap. (Men’s prize money at Russia 2018 was $400 million with the winners, France, taking home $38 million).
There is marked inequality over pay. Lewes, in East Sussex, is the only club to pay men and women equally, but that is aided by private funding and the fact that while the women are in England’s top 20 clubs, the men are not in the top 200.
The 2017 Global Sports Salaries Survey calculated that the average salary in England’s men’s Premier League, £2.64 million, was 99 times that in the female equivalent, the FA Women’s Super League. The survey also calculated that Neymar, Brazil’s Paris St-Germain striker, earned slightly more in a year than all the women in the top seven female leagues.
The obvious response is that men’s football generates huge income and women’s football, in many places, requires subsidy. The fact the women’s game was banned for half a century is a key factor in this disparity, but sexism and misogyny also hold the sport back.
Even in liberal countries, women working in the sport receive appalling abuse on social media, with some men appearing to be threatened by the very idea of women’s football. Many players feel a responsibility not just to win matches but to alter opinions. Karen Bardsley, England’s goalkeeper, said: “We are trying to change the perception of female sport in this country.”
Performing on the pitch does have an impact. World Cup qualification has prodded associations such as Argentina and Jamaica into belated improvements. In more established markets, blue-chip sponsors sniff opportunity and nations are already jostling to stage the 2023 finals. You can’t be what you can’t see, and girls around the world will watch the matches and see new horizons.
But they will not be watching the world’s best player.