La Manga, SPAIN – The top floor of the Las Lomas apartment block in La Manga plays host to a grand restaurant, with tables and chairs donned in immaculate white cloth, and golden chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings.
It’s like a scene plucked from Titanic (before it hits the iceberg), and it’s most certainly a room fit for one of the world’s finest young footballers. At one of the tables sits 21-year-old Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian superstar who already has two Ligue 1 titles to her name, as well as a Champions League winner’s medal – not to mention the accolade of UEFA’s Best Women’s Player in Europe for 2016.
Born in Molde, a town whose population could just about fit inside Fulham’s Craven Cottage, and is more famous for its glorious mountain peaks than its world class footballers, Hegerberg has risen up through the ranks and found herself already at the very top of the game at an age where most people are considering life post-university.
The striker has more goals than games for current world beaters Lyon, and is already closing in on top spot in the goalscorer rankings for her national team. When I join her in Spain to discuss her life and career, Norway have just beaten rivals Sweden in their new head coach Martin Sjögren’s first game.
“This is a fresh start for us,” she says excitedly. “We have a new coach and we have a lot of new players too. This is a good start for us because we’ve shown what we’ve been practising in the training sessions, we’re not afraid of trying new things, and the coach has a plan – he knows where he wants to get us.”
Just 24 hours after we speak, Hegerberg would go on to score the winner against Mark Sampson’s England, exacting a small amount of revenge on the nation that knocked Norway out of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Norway had gone into that tournament with high expectations despite having been drawn with one of the favourites, Germany, in the group stages: they had one of the best young players in the world among their ranks after all. But their expectations were not to be met, as goals from Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze saw England overcome a 1-0 deficit to send Hegerberg and co on an early flight back to Oslo.
Despite having the better of the encounter, the striker was brutally honest about Norway’s elimination from the tournament - a bad result which would see coach Even Pellerud resign from his position.
“Playing in a World Cup in itself is a huge experience, but we have to be honest and say we weren’t good enough to go forward in the tournament,” says the 21-year-old. “If you look at the games we played, you couldn’t know our style of play watching us. We didn’t know our own system; it’s been some years now where that development hasn’t been great, and that was a good example.”
She added: “We were 1-0 up [against England] but still we couldn’t figure out how to outplay them. What was our style of play? I can’t even remember.”
It’s not like the result went unnoticed back home in Norway either: despite their lack of resources and numbers compared to the likes of the USA and Germany, the Norwegians have a rich history where women’s football is concerned, and their fans stand up and pay attention when it comes to major tournaments.
The Grasshoppers, as they’re nicknamed, played in the very first Women’s World Cup final in 1991. and went on to win the tournament four years later against Germany. As for the European Championship, they won that two years prior to their success on the world stage, and reached the final of the last tournament four years ago in Sweden.
“You feel the attention get stronger when we play in a major tournament,” she says. “We have a really great handball team and they always do a good tournament and people in Norway pay a lot of attention. It was like that [for us] at Euro 2013, especially among the youngsters, but the challenge for us is to keep that interest up and that’s a big responsibility.”
But does Hegerberg feel the pressure? A 21-year-old now commonly thought of as the best in Europe, her stock is so high that there was a mixture of bemusement and outrage when she was left off the Ballon d’Or shortlist at the end of the last year.
Despite her club side Lyon boasting an array of star names, Hegerberg has taken on the mantle of being the side’s main goalscorer; she did, however, miss Lyon’s first penalty in the 2016 Champions League final shoot-out before her teammates turned the deficit around.
So is it all as simple as she makes it look, even in those circumstances? “I feel like I’m living my dream! I try to kick ass every day and to become a better player all the time. Of course the pressure can affect you, but you can either take the positives and turn it into something good or you can let it disturb your plans.
“I’ve got a good plan sketched in my head, I’m 21 and I’ve experienced so much already, but there’s a long way for me to go. I feel like I can still improve in so many ways but it’s a dream playing at this level. It’s hard too, of course, there are bad days and you have to handle a lot of different situations, but at the end of each day I just think, ‘this is so cool’.”
It begs the question of whether Hegerberg’s sketched out plan involves leaving the dominant French side in the near future. Gerard Precheur’s side have won an incredible ten Ligue 1 titles in a row and have also taken home three of the last six Champions League trophies - but Hegerberg sees no reason to step away from that success for the moment.
“Right now I’m really focused on short-term ambitions; I have a contract until 2019 because I feel it’s the best place I can be for my development and to keep winning titles. But you never know, football is developing all around the world, but the most important aspect for me is to have that hunger, to stay motivated, and I can say I have all that right now.”
Should Hegerberg decide that post-2019 World Cup is a good time to move on from France, England may be a tempting destination for the superstar, given her elder sister Andrine made the move to the FA Women’s Super League last summer with Birmingham City.
Two years older than Ada, Andrine Hegerberg spent most of her early years playing with her sister before moving to Sweden, while the younger striker joined German side Turbine Potsdam. But despite her own reputation as one of the world’s best, Ada says it was actually Andrine who was the keener footballer when they were children.
“Andrine was the one most interested in football. She was the big football star and kind of dragged me into it because she wanted someone to play with,” she laughs.
“I was kind of a hang-around before I realised this was actually really fun and I could kick a football. My family played a big role in my interest; to have a sister two years older drag you into the game was so important and I’m grateful I had a family like that because I don’t think I’d be where I am if it wasn’t for that.”
Down to earth and very modest about her route into the game, it’s no surprise the Norwegian came from a complete family of footballers. It wasn’t just Andrine who played football: her brother Silas plays semi-professionally back in Norway, whilst both of their parents, Gerd and Stein Erik, were also keen footballers long before the two sisters arrived on the scene.
“My dad coached my mum’s team for a while, my brother played, my sister played, so it was natural that I grew up around it. I grew up in a little town where football was the big thing, you know?
“I kicked around with the boys like everyone else, I played with the boys’ team which felt completely normal for me – they were just my mates! As I got older, I started playing with the girls, and from then on I just kept going.”
The siblings were quite literally inseparable: all three started their careers at Sunndal before moving onto the more established Kolbotn IF. It was at this point that Silas took a step back while both sisters continued their move up the ladder with Stabæk, the club where both began to announce themselves as the biggest talents in world football. Then came the split as Ada headed for Germany with Andrine staying closer to home in Sweden, but the sisters would soon be reunited as the national team began to call both up to their squad on a fairly regular basis.
“Sometimes we forget how insane it is to play together for our country,” says Hegerberg Jnr. “We want to win, we want to develop, so sometimes I forget to stop and take a step back to realise how amazing it is to play for your country with your big sis!
“We know each other so well both on and off the field so we work together to try and bring the team and ourselves to new heights. It’s kind of crazy we’re playing together but I love it so much.”
So what chance that both sisters return to their clubs in August with a gold medal around their necks? After an impressive start to the year which saw the sisters combine to down England in La Manga, Ada says her side “should have ambitions” to become European champions for a second time.
“Winning the title with your national team is a dream of mine,” she says. “I’ve aimed for a lot of things and now it’s to head as far as possible with this team in the summer. We have the quality to win a medal but it’s a long journey and this is only the beginning.
“We have to try and reach the top, reach our ambitions and if we keep going with the plan we’ve set ourselves on with the coach, we have a really good chance…”
By Rich Laverty. Rich is an IBWM Senior Writer. Image credit goes fully to Rainer Fussgänger.