Winning the first ever Ballon d’Or Féminin was a career-defining moment for Ada Hegerberg, Norwegian footballer and star forward of French football team Olympique Lyonnais – a side which she has helped win the Champions League for three straight seasons.
‘This is a huge step for women’s football,’ she said as she accepted her award at the ceremony at the Grand Palais in Paris on Monday night, before making a speech about empowering girls in sport. As she celebrated, French DJ Martin Solveig, the man who presented her award, asked her, ‘Do you know how to twerk?’ On camera her frustration at this highly inappropriate question is palpable in her response: leaving the stage with a short, sharp ‘no’. A reaction that speaks of her composure, quick-thinking and self-confidence.
It seems that, despite women’s football having an increasingly high profile and advancements in gender equality, some men just can’t process women’s success – and have to make it all about themselves. Tellingly, neither of the night’s other two (male) winners, Luka Modric and Kylian Mbappé, were asked to perform for the cameras by the host when they picked up their awards. They were allowed to enjoy their moment, comment free.
‘Nothing has changed in the 14 years since I started my career’
‘It makes me more frustrated than angry, because nothing has changed in the 14 years since I started my career,’ says Charlie Webster, a female sports pundit and television presenter. ‘It was so goddamn hard to be a woman then – you constantly had to justify yourself. And this makes me wonder whether all women’s hard work since then has made any difference.’
Joe Brewin, Digital Editor of Four Four Two, agrees. ‘I think Solveig’s comment shows that there’s sadly still a deep-rooted bias against women in football,’ he says. ‘The biggest shame is that we’ve been heading in a good direction – women’s football is more popular and respected than ever before, there will be a genuine buzz around the World Cup this summer, and there’s finally a Ballon d’Or award for the best female player, 56 years on from the first men’s one.’
After the event, Hegerberg was understandably keen to focus on what this meant for women’s sport, and not on Solveig’s comments – which were beginning to dominate coverage of the event, already making a conversation that should be about a woman’s historic achievement about a man’s behaviour. ‘I didn’t really consider it as sexual harassment or anything in the moment,’ she said. ‘I was just happy to do the dance and win the Ballon d’Or to be honest.’
To make matters worse, Solveig proved not just once, but twice that he just didn’t get it. In a video he posted shortly after the event he said: ‘I’m amazed and astonished by what I’m reading on the internet. I of course didn’t want to offend anyone…This was a joke and I want to apologise to anyone I may have offended.’ He then expressed this ultimate non-apology a second, and third time, in separate Twitter posts. ‘I explained to @AdaStolsmo the buzz and she told me she understood it was a joke. Nevertheless my apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Most importantly congratulations to Ada’. Firstly, ‘My apologies to anyone who may have been offended’ is not an apology at all. Secondly, it puts the onus on the people who have taken umbrage at his comments, instead accepting responsibility for humiliating Hegerberg at a peak moment in her career.
‘The banter is used to embarrass women and undermine them. But you don’t need to be degrading to be funny or clever’
‘Some people might say it’s just a joke, but the point is he would never have said that to Modric or Messi or Ronaldo,’ says Webster. ‘The banter is used to embarrass women and undermine them. But you don’t need to be degrading to be funny or clever. It often happens because men feel threatened.’ The only conclusion we can sadly draw from the situation is that although we’ve undoubtedly made grand strides in gender equality in the past 100 years, a chasm of inequality still exists when it comes to women and success. Embarrassing women, like Solveig’s ‘twerking’ comment, is a tool often used to demean women when they’re deemed too intimidatingly successful by a patriarchal society. And events like this week’s Ballon D’Or awards shows just how far we have to go before women’s achievements – sporting and otherwise – are recognised in the same way as men’s, and taken as seriously. The key is, of course, to keep calling out people like Solveig for their inappropriate behaviour. But we’ve also got to make an effort to teach the next generation of men not to be intimidated by a woman’s success, and for women not to feel bad about being successful – or thinking accolades like the Ballon d’Or are out of their reach, and all they’re good for is ‘twerking’.