his is the story of the greatest night of my entire life. This is about a moment from the Ballon d’Or ceremony that I will never forget, even if I lived 200 years.
It has nothing to do with dancing.
It has everything to do with respect.
And with Roberto Carlos, and Kylian Mbappé, and Mario Balotelli.
But this story actually starts two weeks before the ceremony. It starts with a simple sentence, completely out of the blue.
“Ada, can you keep a secret?”
That was the start of this fantastic dream. One of my assistant coaches at Olympic Lyonnaise had called me into his office after training.
He said, “Listen, you can’t tell anyone.”
I said, “O.K.?”
He said, “You’re not going to tell anyone?”
I said, “I’m not going to tell anyone.”
And then he just said it ….
He said, “You’re going to win the Ballon d’Or.”
When you hear those words, 7,000 images start flashing in your mind. Because it was not just the Ballon d’Or. It was the first-ever women’s Ballon d’Or. So it was completely overwhelming. I started crying and laughing at the same time.
He said, “You’ll keep it a secret, yes?”
I said, “Of course, of course.”
Well, I lasted about 10 minutes with our little secret. As soon as I got to my car, I FaceTimed my mom and dad, who were actually visiting my older sister, Andrine, at PSG. They were out walking around Paris at the time, so my mom was pointing the camera around one of the boulevards, like, Look, honey!
I said, “Mom, you’re not going to believe this.”
She flipped the camera back around, and her face was full of Mom Concern.
She said, “What happened now? Are you O.K.?!”
I said, “Mom, I’m going to win the Ballon d’Or.”
And she just started crying.
My dad was shaking his head in disbelief.
When we hung up, I just sat in my car in silence, thinking, This can’t be true. This must be a dream.
Stuart Franklin/UEFA via Getty Images
It went on like that for two weeks. I was barely sleeping at night. Then when I went to training, I would forget about everything completely. That’s the beautiful thing about football, isn’t it? Whatever is going on in your life, you completely forget about it when the ball is at your feet. But then as soon as I got out to my car after training, I would remember again.
You’re going to win the Ballon d’Or.
This can’t be true.
You’re the little girl from the tiny Norwegian village.
This must be a dream.
My dad loves to tell this one story about me as a kid …
You see, growing up, we were a real football family — my mom and dad both were coaches, and my sister was a great player. I was two years younger, so I was always the one watching — just sitting on the steps with my books and my little soda. I wanted nothing to do with it.
My sister was not just playing with the boys team. She was actually the captain of the boys team. And the coach? It was my mother. This was the terrific thing about growing up in a town of 7,000 people in the middle of nowhere. There was a real feeling of equality. Nobody said anything about my sister being the captain or my mother being the coach.
It was not boys football or girls football. It was just football.
Anyway, one day I was sitting in the grass watching my sister dominate a game, and one of the parents turned to me and said, “Ada, what are you going to be when you grow up?”
I was probably absorbed in my book or something, so I thought about it for a minute.
So the guy tried to help me. He said, “Are you going to be a footballer like your big sister?”
And apparently, I just looked at him with disgust and said, “No, I’m going to have a real job.”
Courtesy of Ada Hegerberg
My father still laughs about that all the time. It was a very Norwegian response, I think. We’re very practical people in Norway.
Of course, that didn’t last long. When I started playing football and falling in love with the game, I knew instantly that I didn’t just want to play for fun. It was almost like life or death for me right away. I wanted to be like Thierry Henry — a complete footballer in every way. I wanted to leave my home and play abroad. I wanted to be great.
When I was maybe 11 years old, my father told me, “If you really want this, we’re in it 100%. We’ll do anything for you. But only if you want it.”
I told him that I wanted it more than anything in the world. 1,000%.
It wasn’t about money. There was no money. It was about passion. It was purely about football. Whenever we lost a match, I would get so upset that I’d ride my bike home in tears. And this was a kids game in the middle of nowhere in Norway. It didn’t matter.
But it mattered to me.
The one thing I would say to any girl who is reading this right now is this: You can’t lose your fire. You can’t let anybody take your fire away from you. If you have big dreams, the fire is the only thing that will get you there.
Talent alone will not do it. Patience will not do it. You’re going to be tested and pushed to the limits of what you can take. You’re going to have to work just as hard as the men to get to the top of your sport, but for a lot less money. You’re going to cry. You’re going to throw up. You’re going to ache. I remember when I finally had the chance to go play abroad in eastern Germany with Turbine Potsdam, I was so naive. I was 17, and still trying to finish my high school work on the side.
We would train three times per day.
We would train in the freezing rain, in the snow. It didn’t matter.
It was absolutely brutal. They would push us to the breaking point.
But every single player showed up on time and gave 100%. Every single day. No excuses, no complaints. No one could afford to complain. I would come home at night and I was so sore and exhausted that I would pass out on my bed at seven o’clock with my homework scattered everywhere.
These are the moments that nobody sees. But you can’t lose the fire.
Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images
I could speak for hours about equality, and what needs to change in football, and in society as a whole. But in the end, everything comes back to respect.
I never saw myself as a women’s footballer. Not when I was in my tiny village in Norway. Not when I was suffering in Germany. Not when I finally made it to Lyon.
We work just as hard as any footballer, period. We go through the same experiences and heartaches. We make the same sacrifices. We leave our families behind to chase our dreams, too.
It is simply about respect.
I was very fortunate to sign with Olympique Lyonnais, which is the model for this level of respect. At Lyon, the men’s and the women’s teams are treated as equals. We need more people in the game with the vision of Jean-Michel Aulas, who knows that investing in the women’s game is a win-win for the club and the city and the players.
When you get world-class investment, you get world-class results.
When the nominees for the Ballon d’Or Féminin were announced, there were seven of us from Lyon on the list. Seven out of 15. That made me so proud, and it’s a testament to the work of Mr. Aulas. My game was able to flourish at Lyon because we’re in a true professional environment every single day.
The male players are treated as our colleagues. It’s that simple. Isn’t that the way it should be everywhere? Every female player deserves the same opportunity to develop. There’s so much talent out there all over the world that deserves a chance to shine.
Football federations, are you listening?
We can do better.When you get world-class investment, you get world-class results.
This is why the 2018 Ballon d’Or awards ceremony was much bigger than me. This was not my moment. This was our moment.
This is why I couldn’t sleep at night.
This is why my heart was beating out of my chest when I arrived at the ceremony.
But then something incredible happened. Something I will remember for 200 years.
As soon as I sat down, I felt someone tap the back of my chair.
I heard, “Hey! Ada! Ada!”
You know when you were in primary school and your friend would tap the back of your chair to tell you a secret? It was like that.
I turned around, and it was Roberto Carlos.
He had a big smile.
He said, “Ada! It’s me again!”
When I won the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year award in 2016, Roberto was sitting right behind me that night, too. So we talked a lot that night in a funny mixture of English, Spanish, Portuguese and hand gestures, and we became friends. He has so much respect for the women’s game, and he’s so funny. So as soon as I saw him again and we started talking, my shoulders dropped. I totally relaxed.
I was surrounded by love and respect. I was surrounded by footballers. Legends. People who understood the sacrifice.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
When I got up onstage to accept my award, everything was calm. Everything was warm. Everything was perfect. I looked out into the crowd and saw so many amazing footballers. The women’s game and the men’s game were side by side.
What an incredible, beautiful moment.
I will not let it be ruined by a stupid joke from a presenter.
It didn’t ruin it in the moment.
It does not ruin it in my memory.
The best part was that when I returned to my seat, I didn’t know what to do with the trophy. It’s quite big and shiny, and I didn’t want to just hold it in my lap for the rest of the ceremony.
So I did a very Norwegian thing.
I put it on the floor under my seat.
All of a sudden, I feel Roberto tapping on my chair again.
He said, “Ada! Ada! What are you doing?”
I said, in Spanish, “What’s wrong, Roberto?”
He said, “You can’t put that on the floor! That’s the Ballon d’Or!”
I said, “Roberto, what do I do with it?”
He said, “Here, I’ll protect it for you.”
He stretched out his arms like, Here, give me the baby. I will hold her.
I couldn’t stop laughing. I gave him the Ballon d’Or and he held it in his arms for most of the night, protecting it.
I was thinking, This can’t be real. This is a dream.
Then at the end of the ceremony, all the award winners were taking photos together — me, Luka Modrić and Kylian Mbappé. Of course, Mbappé had won the under-21 trophy, and he’s such a nice guy, and I was feeling good, so I made a little joke.
I said, “Kylian, you must practice your English for your speech next year, when you win the big one.”
Everybody laughed. I think I nailed it.
What a moment … I’m standing there shoulder to shoulder with Mbappé and Modrić, and all the cameras are flashing, and we’re laughing. There is nothing better than that. It was the most fantastic night of my life. Not because of the award, but because of the respect that was in the room. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
After the ceremony was over, it was quite late at night, and I was walking the streets of Paris with my family, carrying the Ballon d’Or under my arm. We stopped to take some photos in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and then we realized that we were starving.
But it was around midnight, so all the restaurants were closed. We walked and walked until we found this little Iranian restaurant on a side street. It was basically empty except for a vocalist singing some songs really loudly.
We all sat down for a meal in this place, with the guy singing Iranian pop songs the whole time. He was really singing his heart out, and we were eating kebabs and rice and laughing about old memories. At that point, my phone was blowing up with messages about the presenter’s comment. I had no idea it had gone viral. I got so many incredible messages of support from my fellow footballers. Even Mario Balotelli sent me a message, which was such a cool surprise. But to be honest with you, I didn’t read most of them until the next day.
That night, we weren’t bothered. We were having the time of our lives.
At one point, our waiter came over and asked how the food was, and then he pointed to the shiny black box on the table.
He said, “Excuse me, but if you don’t mind me asking, what’s in there?”
My mother replied, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just the Ballon d’Or.”
We opened the box and started taking pictures with everybody in the restaurant. It was quite a scene, I am sure.
Norwegians, Iranians, Parisians … a happy singer … and the Ballon d’Or.
If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
So, no, I’m sorry to say — I cannot twerk.
But if you catch me on the right night, and I’m feeling good, and you turn on the perfect Iranian pop song … I can sing my heart out.
And I can play a bit of football, too.