Ada Hegerberg apologizes in advance for the forthcoming cliché. She knows it sounds trite, exactly what she would be expected to say, given all that she has been through. It is what everyone says, after all.
It is, though, the only way to describe how it has felt, these last five months or so, finding herself 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 once more. There is just no other way of putting it: She feels, she says, like a kid again.
In part, it is the little electric thrill, the pulse of pure, unalloyed delight that comes from feeling the grass beneath her feet, being surrounded by teammates, being able to do what she has always done again. She was deprived of it for almost two years; she is determined to “take joy” from its restoration.
But it is not just that. The thrill is related to the rediscovery of possibility, too. At 26, Hegerberg again feels like she is at the start of something, blissfully unaware of limitations or horizons or destinations.
“I don’t know what the end looks like,” she said. “I might be a completely different player to who I used to be. And I see that in a positive way.” That is the joy of youth: not knowing what you might yet become.
In an ideal world, of course, Hegerberg would not have had that chance. It goes without saying that she would not have chosen to lose the better part of two seasons of her career to injury, and certainly not to lose the two seasons that she did.
In January 2020, Hegerberg was more than just the finest female soccer player on the planet; she was the breakout star of the women’s game, set to become the sport’s dominant, animating force — at least in Europe — for the next decade or so. The previous year, she had been all but untouchable.
In December 2018, Hegerberg had been named as the inaugural winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or. Six months later, she had scored a lightning, devastating hat-trick in the Champions League final, delivering her club, Olympique Lyon, a fourth consecutive European crown. By October 2019, she had secured another piece of history, breaking the record for the most goals scored in the competition.
And then, when a scan confirmed she had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a training session in January 2020, she faded from view. She was absent as the season went on hiatus in the aftermath of the pandemic. She was absent as Lyon won a fifth straight Champions League title.
That proved to be just the start. In September 2020, she sustained a stress fracture in her left tibia, putting an end to whatever hopes she harbored of a relatively quick return. Soon after, Lyon confirmed that she would not play at all until the fall of 2021, at the very earliest. In the end, 20 months would elapse before Hegerberg played again.
For most athletes, that would have felt like a lifetime. In women’s soccer, it seems like an eternity. The game is evolving at such speed and at such scale in Europe that, by the time Hegerberg returned to the field in a Champions League game against the Swedish team Hacken in October, it had changed almost beyond recognition.
Lyon was no longer Europe’s pre-eminent 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 deposed as French champion for the first time since 2006, by Paris St.-Germain, and it had even lost its reputation as the sport’s most glamorous destination: Sam Kerr, Tobin Heath and Pernille Harder had all been drawn to England, rather than France, by the television-generated wealth flooding into the game.
After a while, Hegerberg even lost her standing as the continent’s standout player, too. Suddenly, that title belonged to Alexia Putellas, the Barcelona captain and reigning Ballon d’Or winner, with a raft of her teammates in her wake. Vivianne Miedema, Arsenal’s relentless forward, even seemed to have dislodged Hegerberg as the game’s most clinical finisher.
There were elements of that growth she found welcome: the expansion of the Champions League group phase, a broadcast deal with the streaming service Dazn that has, to Hegerberg, “given the players the platform we deserve.” Others she did not, like being forced to watch from the outside as the totems and truisms of the game shifted, seeming to leave her behind.
Still, though, she betrays no sense of bitterness. That is the nature of soccer: It is, as she puts it, “fresh,” in a state of almost constant renewal. “Life goes on,” she said. “I am fully aware I was away for a long time. People forget about you.”
Patience, Hegerberg would admit, is not something that comes naturally to her. She is, by her own admission, a “very organized” person, the kind who might take a dim view of some minor inconvenience like a last-minute change of plans. Her recovery, though, has taught her its virtues; she has tried, as much as she can, not to sweat the small stuff. “Ask my agent,” she said. “He’s almost proud of me.”
It is as much a practical choice as a philosophical one. Injury, and the arduous, frustrating recovery that followed, changed Hegerberg’s perspective on her career — hence the greater determination to “take joy” from it — but it is telling that she describes fretting over trivialities as a “waste of calories.” A worry is just energy that could be put to better use elsewhere. She has become more patient because she does not want to waste any time.
“I could have said that five Champions Leagues and a Ballon d’Or was enough,” she said. “But I want to create more records. I want to be back scoring 40 or 50 goals a season. They’re mad numbers, and it will take time, but I know I can.” She is driven, she said, not by proving a point to a game that moved on without her, but “proving things to myself.”
“It is about self-respect,” she added. “I want to get ahead of my limits. That is what I want to do as an athlete: explode all limits that exist.”
Her first target, of course, is restoring Lyon to the pinnacle: reclaiming both its French and European championships. The club faces Juventus, the Italian champion, in the Champions League quarterfinals this week. “We won it five times in a row,” Hegerberg said, giving away a brief, solitary flash of exasperation. “It was something historical, something that maybe nobody will ever do again. Maybe people forgot that.”
After that, her targets may include returning to the international fold; she has not played for Norway since 2017, in protest over the disregard the country’s authorities had for the women’s game. Martin Sjogren, the national team coach, said in February that a “closer dialogue” with Hegerberg meant that playing for her country again “feels possible.” She may yet return in time to feature in this summer’s European Championship.
Whether she will ever be the Ada Hegerberg she was, she does not yet know, of course. She is still waiting, patient and impatient, to find out. The prospect that she will be different, though, does not fill her with dread. Perhaps her second edition will be even better. That, after all, is why she feels like a kid again: because her world, once more, is full of possibility.