By Victoria Klesty and Terje Solsvik
OSLO (Reuters) – Norway hope to replace absent Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg with a winning team spirit when the World Cup kicks off in France next week, coach Martin Sjoegren told Reuters.
Hegerberg, who scored a hat-trick in the final of the Champions League earlier this month during Olympique Lyonnais’ 4-1 win over Barcelona, has refused to play for her country for the past two years.
The 23-year-old striker quit the team after Norway lost all three games and failed to score a single goal during the Euro 2017 tournament, and attempts by the Norwegian Football Federation to break the impasse have failed.
“I miss playing for the country, but not for the federation,” Hegerberg told public broadcaster NRK after the May 18 Champions League victory.
Without Hegerberg, who was also named BBC Footballer of the Year, Norway will instead rely on their team spirit and collective workrate as they take on Nigeria, South Korea and hosts France in the group stage.
The squad still contains plenty of star potential, featuring recently-signed Barcelona winger Caroline Graham Hansen and Wolfsburg’s Kristine Minde, while Chelsea players Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir have both recently returned from injury.
“This team has grown very, very strong after the failure in the Euro finals two years ago,” Sjoegren added, with Caroline Graham Hansen, veteran Isabell Herlovsen and Lisa-Marie Utland, Norway’s top scorer in the qualification stage, all providing a significant goal threat.
“We have an extremely good team spirit, which is in many ways our biggest advantage. There are other countries which are on higher level than we are, comparing the individual players,” he added.
France and the United States are the bookmakers’ favourites for the tournament, with Norway ranked around 10th or worse out of the 24 teams.
Sjoegren said that while it was undoubtedly important to have star players, teamwork could hold the key to success.
“We saw that in the latest men’s world championship. The teams built around one player didn’t make it very far, such as Argentina and Portugal. That wasn’t very successful in the men’s championships, and will not be in the women’s championship.”
He also predicted that Norway should be able to progress from their group this time: “I think we have a good chance to get past the group stage, that is our ambition, and we aim to go pretty far in these championships.”
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Victoria Klesty; editing by Tony Lawrence)