Why the world’s best soccer player isn’t playing at the Women’s World Cup

Ada Hegerberg is probably the world’s best women’s soccer player. The 23-year-old Norwegian stars for Lyon, one of the world’s top club teams, where she dominated throughout Europe (four Champions League titles) and dismantled opponents nearly singlehandedly with 130 goals in just over 100 matches across five years.

Hegerberg could’ve shined at this month’s Women’s World Cup in France, but she isn’t there. She spurned Norway who qualified and quickly made an impressive stamp in the week’s first action after beating Nigeria 3-0 in their opening match of the tournament. But she’s sitting out this summer’s games for a bigger reason.

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The fight against inequality

Her exact reasons for sitting out of the World Cup remain unclear, but she’s been protesting the inequalities in women’s soccer. It started when she began protesting the Norwegian national team two years ago because she felt there wasn’t the same support for the women’s team as there was for the men’s. Beyond pay, Hegerberg was concerned with playing conditions, coaching, treatment, and other things.

Since her protest started in 2017, she has not played an international match for Norway. The Norwegian soccer federation did reach an equal pay agreement for both genders in 2017, but that didn’t address all the problems Hegerberg wants to see fixed.

“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,” Hegerberg told ESPN before the World Cup. “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.”

A similar battle is taking place in America after the US women’s national team filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation seeking equal treatment and pay. The women’s players claim there’s “institutionalized gender discrimination” compared to the men’s national team, which has never won a World Cup compared to the women’s’ three championships.

Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018 in a cringe-worthy ceremony that included a question about twerking, admitted her absence from Norway’s national team was because she didn’t have her heart fully invested into the squad, which hurt her performance both for her club and the national team.

“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,” she said. “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.”

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