As USWNT scores big victory for women's soccer, Ada Hegerberg continues the fight abroad

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In any given match, Ada Hegerberg is arguably the player most likely to score or otherwise make an impact.

They call that the “danger” woman. Hegerberg is dangerous, all right.

She has 15 goals and seven assists in 24 appearances this season, and will lead French powerhouse Lyon against Barcelona in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final Saturday (1 p.m. ET, DAZN). She’s doing it after missing more than 20 months due to an ACL injury, resuming an all-time great career that’s netted her numerous accolades.

And the opponent’s goal is not the only thing she’s targeted.

Like the United States women's national team stateside, Hegerberg has disrupted the status quo of women’s soccer worldwide, which is more popular than ever but still lags well behind the men’s game in terms of investment, accountability and much more.

“From a player's perspective, I just want the game to grow,” Hegerberg told Yahoo Sports in an interview courtesy of DAZN and YouTube. “I want the football to be as good as possible. So how do you manage to put people in place in order to do their best and to become better?”

Here’s how.

Lyon and Norway striker Ada Hegerberg, already one of the greatest players of all time on the pitch, has spent years fighting for more investment and respect in women's soccer across the world. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
Lyon and Norway striker Ada Hegerberg, already one of the greatest players of all time on the pitch, has spent years fighting for more investment and respect in women's soccer across the world. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Ada Hegerberg has championed equity in women's soccer investment

To a worldwide audience, the 26-year-old striker is perhaps best known for skipping the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the opportunities that came with it, as part of a protest of the Norwegian Football Federation and its lack of investment in women’s soccer that spanned nearly five years.

To an American audience, meanwhile, the dots to connect between Hegerberg’s protest and the USWNT's fight for equal pay were fairly straightforward. The USWNT scored a historic victory in its equal pay fight Wednesday, securing a pledge from U.S. Soccer to, among other things, distribute FIFA prize money on an equal basis.

While Hegerberg respects and empathizes with the USWNT’s battle, having played with several Americans as club teammates, she feels her own story “got a little bit twisted.”

“In my sense, it was never about the money,” Hegerberg said. “It was much bigger than that.”

Indeed, three months after Hegerberg stopped playing for them, the NFF put forth an equal pay agreement that was signed by both its men's and women's teams. But inequity persisted at the club level — and not just in Norway.

In February, the French Football Federation announced it would bid to host the 2025 UEFA Women's European Championship. Hegerberg tweeted directly at the FFF that investing in France's top-flight Division 1 Féminine, which still isn't fully professional, would be a better use of the money.

Hegerberg also supported Chelsea manager Emma Hayes last October in her criticism of the $17 million prize pot at the women's Euros, which itself is nearly double the previous total but still orders of magnitude behind the $396 million split at last summer's men's Euros. She's been outspoken in other instances, as well.

So while on the surface it's about money, the issue stretches across the sport. More money in the prize pot would equal more investment in national programs, and more investment in national programs would mean more investment in domestic leagues. It would get the wheels churning on improving everything about women's soccer, from the treatment of athletes to the product on the pitch.

"It's my biggest passion, really," Hegerberg said. "I just really want the women's football to go into the right direction. I feel like I have huge responsibility. ... Because I know that a lot of strong women are grandmothers or mothers. They've been paving the way since we got into this game and I just want it to be the case today, as well. And I want to, I want us to be conscious about the fact that we actually have a platform and power to make a change."

Hegerberg will return to one of her sport's biggest platforms this July when Norway takes part in the Euros in England. She returned to the national team in March and played her first game back in April, ending her self-imposed exile after she finally felt someone at the NFF was listening.

Ada Hegerberg will return to major tournament competition with Norway this summer when they take part in the women's European Championship. (Visionhaus/Getty Images)
Ada Hegerberg will return to major tournament competition with Norway this summer when they take part in the women's European Championship. (Visionhaus/Getty Images)

On March 7, former Norwegian national player Lisa Klaveness was elected president of the federation. Hegerberg had gotten to know Klaveness while the former was early in her career and the latter was in the dusk of hers. The relationship carried over to Klaveness' new role.

"I almost felt like I was talking to an ex-teammate rather than someone representing the federation," Hegerberg said. "I definitely put my soul into having an impact on how we can keep on pushing for young girls in football in Norway, and it was just the right timing. And it was really great to see the teammates again, to see these young girls and boys back in the stadium, representing your country."

That doesn't mean the work is done.

"There's still so many things to do," Hegerberg said. "It starts with performing."

She knows a thing or two about that.

Hegerberg's domination of world's top competitions

Hegerberg won the inaugural Ballon d'Or Féminin in 2018 — and, in a gross instance that underscores the respect she's fighting for, was promptly asked to twerk — and is the all-time leading scorer in the UWCL with 58 goals.

She's helped lead Lyon to the French league title six times, with a seventh likely coming in early June, and they've also become the premier European club power with five straight Champions League titles from 2015-2020.

Hegerberg missed all of last season with her ACL injury, and while she wouldn't say she's fully back to her pre-injury form, she did note she's focusing on daily improvement and getting comfortable with her body again. And warding off the negative thoughts that can trickle into her hyper-competitive nature.

"I'm not a very patient person," she said with a grin. "So I learned a lot by being patient."

Lyon dispatched last season's French champion Paris Saint-Germain in the UWCL semifinals, with Hegerberg scoring what proved to be the decisive goal in the second leg, and now they get the chance to reclaim their UWCL crown against reigning champion Barcelona on Saturday in Turin, Italy.

The Barcelona women have actually cited losing to Lyon in the 2020 final as an impetus to improve across the board, and they won Spain's Primera Liga Iberdrola this season with a 30-0-0 record. They've also broken the world attendance record twice in the past two months, including a Champions League El Clásico victory over Real Madrid at the end of March.

DAZN says nearly 56 million total viewers have streamed its UWCL coverage this season, so on some level, it's all a testament to the popularity Hegerberg helped build.

Now the question becomes, can Hegerberg and Lyon stay on top of it all?

That remains to be seen. And regardless of what happens Saturday, the bigger battle will continue.

"As long as you're performing at the pitch, it also gives you a strong voice outside it," Hegerberg said. "So it's a tricky balance there, but obviously it's much bigger than me. It's the sport and it's all about getting the sport into the right direction."

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