Norway lets down women’s football

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When Norway’s national women’s football team lost their opening match in the European Championships on Sunday, it wasn’t the only disappointment team players have had to deal with. Neither professional Norwegian clubs nor the national football federation NFF is willing to seriously invest in women’s football, a paradox in a country that otherwise prides itself on equality between men and women.

Norway’s women’s national football team gathered with their shield before European Championship action began on Sunday. It didn’t get off to a good start for the Norwegians. PHOTO: Fotballandslaget

Norway’s top women football players were gathered in Utrecht Sunday to face off against the Netherlands on their rivals’ home turf. They held off the powerful Netherlands’ team, with the score 0-0 at the break, but they didn’t manage to pull off the opening victory they’d hoped for. They ended up losing 1-0 and mostly blamed themselves. “It seems like our nerves got the better of us,” goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth, who plays professionally for Norwegian club Stabæk, told state broadcaster NRK after the match. “We didn’t find our groove.”

Their new coach Martin Sjögren, who took over just last December, faced challenges before the championship action began. Star players like Ada Hegerberg is coming of a long and hard if winning season at her professional club, Lyon in France, and it’s tough to find enough extra energy for a new round that runs through July. Other players perhaps haven’t played enough because of injuries. There’s been a generation shift from the last European Championships in 2013, when Norway won silver.

The Norwegian women are also coming from vastly different everyday situations, and that says something about how Norwegian football functions back home.

Norway hasn’t joined ‘football revolution’
Several of the women chosen for the national team play professionally for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Chelsea (Maren Mjelde), Wolfsburg (Caroline Graham Hansen) and Lyon (Ada Stolsmo Hegerberg, who’s also been celebrated as the best female player in Europe, right up there with Cristiano Ronaldo for the men).

Others play for Norwegian women’s teams set up by the few men’s clubs that have invested in women’s football, including Stabæk and Lillestrøm. The remainder play for small Norwegian clubs like Røa and Klepp. Their situation is night and day from that enjoyed by those at the big European clubs. Newspaper Aftenposten pointed out over the weekend how Norway hasn’t joined the “football revolution” that’s pumped major funding into women’s football, taken Europe by storm in recent years and spread abroad. Even though Norway is a wealthy country that promotes egalitarianism, women’s football continues to be woefully underfunded.

Norwegian players were dejected after losing their first match, against the home team at Euro 2017, which is playing out in the Netherlands. PHOTO: Fotballandslaget

Neither of Norway’s biggest football clubs measured in terms of operating budgets, Rosenborg of Trondheim and Brann of Bergen, has any plans to start up a women’s team. Maren Mjelde, the captain of Norway’s team who plays for Chelsea, grew up in Bergen and told Aftenposten that “of course it’s Brann everyone wants to play for. I hadn’t heard much about Arna-Bjørnar and Sandviken (small local women’s teams) when I was young. It’s Brann that’s always written about.”

Yet Brann did not and still doesn’t have any plans to invest in women’s football. “No, we don’t, we’re neither evaluating or preparing for that, and are concentrating on the men’s team,” Vibeke Johannesen, leader of Brann, told Aftenposten. “If some of the traditional women’s teams want to talk about it, we’re open to talking about what’s best for Bergen, but we won’t take any initiative.”

‘No reason’ to launch a women’s team
In Trondheim, the situation is the same. “We see no reason to start up a women’s team as long as there’s another good offer for women in the city,” Rosenborg’s chairman Ivar Koteng told Aftenposten. “I must be honest enough to say that we have not evaluated it.”

The “good offer” Koteng referred to is the women’s team Trondheims-Ørn, which at least gave women a chance to play football four years before Norway’s Football Federation acknowledged their existance in 1976.  Trondheims-Ørn, however, has an annual budget of NOK 4.5 million (USD 549,000), compared to NOK 161 million (USD 19.6 million) for Rosenborg’s men’s football team. The women players in Trondheim have none of the training, playing or financial opportunities that the male counterparts have. Koteng at least conceded that “equal opportunity has come so far in Norway that the women shouldn’t have to hang after the men-folk. We see the development internationally, that most clubs now have a team for the dames.”

The result is that the best women leave Norway to play abroad. Mjelde is thriving at Chelsea, where she earns enough to live in a house southwest of London, use the club’s huge training facilities and benefit from the attention of 12 full-time employees. “All I need to think about is taking care of my body and playing football,” Mjelde said.

National teammate Caroline Graham Hansen is similiarly pleased with her situation on the German team Wolfsburg, which she called “a bit holy” in the car factory town. The team makes sure Hansen has everything she needs to excel on the playing field, with attention from a doctor, three or four physical therapists and half-a-dozen coaches, and not least four football fields to work out on. “They built our own stadium with 5,000 seats which is perfect for us,” Hansen told Aftenposten. “We fly first-class to matches and charter our own planes if necessary. I don’t think even many of the men (in the top league in Norway) have it this good.”

Norway lagging behind
The big teams including Barcelona, Birmingham City, Manchester City and soon Juventus and Real Madrid have realized there’s interest and clearly money to be made in women’s football. Norway is lagging far behind, and catching criticism for that.

“It’s actually hair-raising that Norway can’t offer the same opportunities in professional football for women as for men,” said Even Pellerud, former coach of the women’s national team. “The pressure (on the clubs) will get harder and harder. But Norway follows after, unfortunately, we’re seldom at the lead. We remain in denial for as long as we can, that’s how Norwegian society is. It’s clear, though, that something will have to happen, it’s just a matter of time. We just have to hope it doesn’t take too much time.”

Meanwhile Norway’s top women players will head overseas to follow their professional dreams, and gather to play for the national team when championship time rolls around. On Monday they were working on easing out the differences amongst them and playing better together. “There was way too much distance between us, we couldn’t manage to help one another,” Hegerberg, the star from Lyon, told state broadcaster NRK after the loss against the Netherlands. “We have to notch up for the next match.” It was due to play out on Thursday, against Belgium.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund