Ada Hegerberg apologizes in advance for the upcoming cliché. She knows it sounds corny, just what she’d expect to say, given everything she’s been through. After all, it’s what everyone says.
It’s the only way to describe what it’s been like, though, for the past five months, not in a treatment room or confined to the gym as part of her recovery from a serious knee injury, but out on a soccer field one more time. There’s just no other way to put it: she feels, she says, like a kid again.
In part it’s the little electrical voltage, the pulse of pure, unadulterated pleasure that comes from feeling the grass beneath her feet, being surrounded by teammates, being able to do what she’s always done. She had been deprived of it for almost two years; she is determined to “take joy” from its recovery.
But it’s not just that. The tension is also related to the rediscovery of possibilities. At 26, Hegerberg once again feels like she is at the beginning of something, blissfully unaware of limitations or horizons or destinies.
“I don’t know what the ending will look like,” she said. “I may be a very different player than I used to be. And I see that in a positive way.” That is the joy of youth: not knowing what you could become.
In an ideal world, Hegerberg wouldn’t have had that chance, of course. It goes without saying that she wouldn’t have chosen to lose the better part of two seasons of her career to injury, and certainly not to lose the two seasons she did.
In January 2020, Hegerberg was more than just the best female footballer in the world; she was the breakthrough star of the women’s game and would become the dominant, animating force of the sport for the next decade – at least in Europe. The year before, she had been virtually untouchable.
In December 2018, Hegerberg was named as the inaugural winner of the Ballon d’Or for women. Six months later, she had scored a lightning-fast, devastating hat-trick in the Champions League final, giving her club, Olympique Lyon, a fourth consecutive European crown. By October 2019, she had secured another piece of history, breaking the record for most goals scored in the league.
And when a scan confirmed that she tore the anterior cruciate ligament of her right knee during a training session in January 2020, she disappeared from view. She was absent as the season took a hiatus in the wake of the pandemic. She was absent when Lyon won the Champions League title for the fifth time in a row.
That turned out to be just the beginning. In September 2020, she suffered a stress fracture to her left tibia, ending any hopes she had for a relatively quick return. Shortly afterwards, Lyon confirmed that she would not be playing at all in autumn 2021 at the earliest. Ultimately, 20 months would pass before Hegerberg played again.
For most athletes, that would have felt like a lifetime. In women’s football, it seems like an eternity. The game is evolving with such speed and on such a scale in Europe that by the time Hegerberg returned to the field in October in a Champions League game against Swedish team Hacken, it had changed almost beyond recognition.
Lyon was no longer Europe’s preeminent superpower; that tag now belonged to Barcelona, the team that had broken its stranglehold on the Champions League a few months earlier. Lyon had been ousted as French champions by Paris St Germain for the first time since 2006, and it had even lost its reputation as the sport’s most glamorous destination: Sam Kerr, Tobin Heath and Pernille Harder had all moved to England, instead of France, through the television-generated wealth pouring into the game.
After a while, Hegerberg even lost her position as the continent’s most outstanding player. Suddenly that title belonged to Alexia Putellas, the Barcelona captain and reigning Ballon d’Or winner, with a slew of teammates in tow. Vivianne Miedema, Arsenal’s ruthless striker, even appeared to have dislodged Hegerberg as the match’s most clinical finisher.
There were elements of that growth that she welcomed: the expansion of the Champions League group stage, a broadcast deal with the streaming service Dazn that, according to Hegerberg, has “given the players the platform we deserve”. Others she didn’t, she liked to watch from the outside as the totems and platitudes of the game changed, and they seemed to leave her behind.
Yet she betrays no sense of bitterness. That is the nature of football: it is, as she puts it, ‘fresh’, in a state of almost constant renewal. “Life goes on,” she said. “I am well aware that I was away for a long time. People forget you.”
Patience, Hegerberg would admit, is not something that comes naturally to her. She is, by her own admission, a “highly organized” person, the kind who can have a vague idea of a minor inconvenience, such as a last-minute change of plans. However, her recovery has taught her its virtues; she tried, as much as she could, not to sweat the little things. “Just ask my agent,” she said. “He’s almost proud of me.”
It is as much a practical choice as it is a philosophical one. Injuries and the grueling, frustrating recovery that followed changed Hegerberg’s perspective on her career—hence the greater determination to “take joy out of it”—but, tellingly, she describes worrying about trivialities as a “waste of calories.” A concern is just energy that could be put to better use elsewhere. She has become more patient because she does not want to waste time.
“I could have said five Champions Leagues and a Ballon d’Or were enough,” she said. “But I want to create more records. I want to score 40 or 50 goals a season again. They’re crazy numbers, and it’ll take time, but I know I can do it.” She’s driven, she said, not by proving a point for a game that went on without her, but by “proving things to myself ‘.
“It’s about self-esteem,” she added. “I want to push my limits. That is what I want to do as an athlete: to explode all the boundaries that exist.”
Her first goal, of course, is to bring Lyon back to the pinnacle: winning back both the French and European championships. The club will face Juventus, the Italian champions, in the quarter-finals of the Champions League this week. “We’ve won it five times in a row,” Hegerberg said, giving away a brief, solitary flash of annoyance. “It was something historic, something that maybe no one will ever do again. Maybe people have forgotten that.”
After that, her goal may include returning to the international herd; she has not played for Norway since 2017, in protest at the country’s authorities’ disregard for the women’s game. Martin Sjögren, the national team manager, said in February that “closer dialogue” with Hegerberg meant playing for her country “felt possible” again. She may return in time to participate in this summer’s European Championship.
She doesn’t know yet whether she will ever become the Ada Hegerberg that she was. She’s still waiting, patiently and impatiently, to find out. However, the prospect that she will be different does not fill her with fear. Maybe her second edition will be even better. After all, that’s why she feels like a kid again: because her world is full of possibilities again.