Ada Hegerberg’s Ballon d’Or reactions echoed class she shows on pitch

Eni Aluko on 6 December 2018

When I was a young girl I had to deal with people calling me weird and strange because I spent so much time around boys playing football. However I am not alone – that seems to be a regular theme when you speak to many of the great female professional footballers in the world about their journey to where they are now. It is not free of adversity and it is challenging having to justify your talent in what has been considered a man’s sport for centuries.

I think the quicker we tell young girls who dream of playing professionally that they should believe in themselves, the more prepared they will be for the world of pro sport. Which is why Ada Hegerberg’s speech at the Ballon d’Or ceremony on Monday was so powerful.

Her words to young girls around the world to “please believe in yourself” gave me goose bumps, because this really is the key to the journey of success: the conversations with yourself to keep pushing and believing even when unexpected challenges come. The next generation of young girls who have a dream to play need this belief more than ever.

I am keen to avoid giving any more attention to the ridiculous request made to Hegerberg by the French DJ Martin Solveig to twerk while collecting the most prestigious individual award in the history of women’s football. However, I think it is important to highlight Hegerberg’s graceful but strong response to it. Let’s face it, that is not the first and will definitely not be the last time a female footballer experiences casual sexism at the highest level of the game, so we should probably identify the best way to deal with it.

Hegerberg exemplified the best way with her strong refusal to pander to any attempt to degrade the incredible achievement of winning the Ballon d’Or. A simple “No” was enough to show her level of personal respect in that moment. It was strong and dignified, and sent a powerful message to all the girls and women watching the ceremony, namely that they do not have to accept such female objectification, especially in moments when they are deserving of praise.

I have to ask myself: have attitudes really changed over the past decade or so in regards to women’s football when we are talking about twerk requests at the 2018 Ballon d’Or? Thankfully the answer is yes, they have. However, we have to be ready for the old attitudes to rear their ugly head now and again and prepare the next generation on how best to deal with it.

Ada Hegerberg in action for Lyon against PSG last month
Ada Hegerberg in action for Lyon against PSG last month. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

I had to deal with casual sexism while working as a pundit for ITV during the World Cup in Russia. Everybody probably remembers the incident involving Patrice Evra applauding me with surprise for knowing my football. It was a difficult moment but all I could do at the time, live on air, was focus on my job and do it to the best of my abilities. I was in a fortunate position – one of very few women given the opportunity to be part of a major broadcaster’s coverage of a major international tournament – and with that came responsibility. I needed to show I could succeed in order for other women to be given the same opportunity in the future, and that would not have been the case had I reacted in the moment. My reaction, rather than my capabilities as a pundit, would have become the story.

Hegerberg no doubt felt a similar level of responsibility on Monday and she dealt with what happened magnificently. It was also encouraging that Solveig’s actions were met with collective disgust, from men as well as women, showing that strides are being made when it comes to the respect of professional footballers, regardless of gender.

What’s for sure is that Hegerberg was a deserving winner of the award. She is the record holder in terms of Champions League goals as well as a hugely important figure for Lyon in France. She has also been consistently vocal about equality and standards in the women’s game. As I have said, she is an inspirational figure who deserves all the global plaudits she has received.

The winner of the men’s Ballon d’Or was a far more debatable choice in my opinion. Luka Modric has had a fantastic year but part of me feels he was given the award purely because it had become predictable for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to win it all the time.

Modric alluded to that with his comments after the ceremony. He spoke of the award not only being for himself but also the other players who could have won it during the years when Ronaldo and Messi shared it between themselves. That felt like a bit of a dig towards two of the greatest players of all time, and an unfair one at that.

Ada Hegerberg with Luka Modric, winner of the men’s Ballon d’Or, and Kylian Mbappé, who won the young player award
Ada Hegerberg with Luka Modric, winner of the men’s Ballon d’Or, and Kylian Mbappé, who won the young player award. Photograph: L'equipe/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Yes, there have been other contenders in the past, and I’m sure a lot of people will say Andrés Iniesta deserved to win it at least once during his time at Barcelona. But the same could also be said of Sergio Busquets, so the question has to be asked: is the Ballon d’Or for unsung heroes or standout heroes? Because if it’s for standout heroes then Ronaldo and Messi have been more than worthy winners for many years. Their numbers, in terms of goals especially, are unmatched and have been for some time. For all the good work of the players around them, such as Iniesta, it is they who have made the difference for their respective teams, so it’s only right they have picked up the major individual awards.

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And if we are now deciding that the Ballon d’Or is about influence rather than goals, then a strong case could be made for Antoine Griezmann winning it. He has played a crucial role in Atlético Madrid reaching Champions League and Europa League finals, not to mention France winning the World Cup. Oh, and he has also scored one or two goals along the way.

I have nothing against Modric – he has been a fantastic player for Real Madrid and was crucial to Croatia’s run to the World Cup final. But I have to question the motives behind him being awarded this year’s Ballon d’Or. What’s for absolute certain is that Messi finishing fifth on the final list is unbelievable.

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