Caroline Graham Hansen was 14 when she first found out there was a women’s national team in Norway. It was only then, after 10 years of playing football for three hours every day – however cold or wet the weather would get in Oslo – that she realized the game she enjoyed so much could also become her career.
Now 27, Graham Hansen is looking forward to playing at a sold-out Camp Nou in the Champions League against Real Madrid on Wednesday in front of upwards of 90,000 supporters at Camp Nou, where the women’s team will play just their second competitive game, with a 3-1 lead from the first leg.
Barca will hope to book their place in the semifinals of the Champions League, but they have already wrapped up a third successive Primera Division title earlier this month with a 5-0 win against Madrid. They won a first-ever Champions League last season to crown a Treble-winning campaign and they’re on track for even more success this season: In addition to the league, they’ve already won the Spanish Supercopa — the one trophy to elude them last season — and have won all 36 games played in all competitions. They could end the season with four trophies this time around, with a semifinal to come in the Copa de la Reina.
Graham Hansen and her all-conquering Barcelona teammates are leading the way for a new generation of female footballers. This is a generation of players who exude confidence on the pitch and expect more from the sport off it.
The team’s sustained success has gained recognition for the individuals who have made Barca the best side in Europe. Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas has emerged as the side’s icon. Her face of her, with the slogan “The Queen“(“The Queen”), now fills billboards across the city previously reserved for Lionel Messi. Dutch winger Lieke Martens, a previous winner of FIFA’s The Best, is also a star in her own right.
Graham Hansen cuts a more curious case. Speak to anyone at the club and they will tell you the Norwegian winger (along with Putellas) is the team’s best player. Last season she contributed to 27 goals in 23 league games (eight goals, 19 assists) and she has another 15 in 19 appearances this term (five goals, 10 assists.)
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Beyond the numbers, she’s thrilling to watch. She takes the game to the opposition, beating players once and then beating them again. She says people at the club have compared her in style to men’s player Ousmane Dembele, though she won’t indulge in such comparisons herself. Cast your eye over individual awards and amazingly, you will not find her name from her.
“Every player wants recognition for what you do, but when I know that my performances helped my team win the Treble and the Champions League, that’s all that matters,” she told ESPN ahead of Wednesday’s match. “If I wanted to do individual sports, I would do something other than football.”
Graham Hansen’s omission from the 20-woman Ballon d’Or shortlist — as well as not a single Barca player being named in the FIFPro World XI this January — has provoked a wider debate about the coverage of women’s football.
“Our league is not even televised,” Graham Hansen added. “This is the first year where the Champions League is televised, where you can watch all the games where you want, whenever you want. This is the biggest issue in terms of making sure our game gets the recognition we deserve. It’s not about the individual prizes — for me it’s about the recognition our game deserves, because if you can’t watch the games, how can people have an opinion on how we are going to move forward?”
There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel in Spain, with the league set to be professionalized next season. Graham Hansen, along with her Barca teammates, has pressed for all teams to be afforded a more even playing field. She acknowledges that Barca’s domestic domination — 25 wins in 25 league games this season, scoring 138 goals scored and conceding just seven — comes, in part, from a privileged position.
“We need to ensure that [every team] play on [real] grass,” she said. “There must be certain standards related to stadiums. There must be certain standards related to the contracts players are given and the amount of time they are training. All these little things make a huge difference.
“If you can add that all the games will be televised, it will be a great product to sell because there are a lot of good players in Spain who are not seen. They are reckoned to be bad because Barca win [big], but it’s not because they are bad — it’s just because we are very good. It’s so important that we professionalize so everyone gets the recognition they deserve.”
Back in Norway, they do know how good Graham Hansen is. She has scored 42 goals in 91 games for the national team, and in a nation that boasts two of the best goal scorers in the game right now — Lyon striker Ada Hegerberg and Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland — it’s Graham Hansen’s face that adorns Pepsi bottles across the country. It’s a partnership she believes is more important than you may initially think.
“First of all, you have to put a face out there that people want to see,” she explained. “I think especially in Norway, but anywhere in the world, to reckon that your face is going to be on a Pepsi bottle is kind of unachievable because you are a women’s footballer. This campaign is to change the way people look at our game and make it more visible.
“If it also makes the younger generation, boys and girls, look up to you and think that ‘I want that to be me’ and [the girls] see it’s possible to have the same dreams and goals as the boys do. To be apart of that, to change the way younger girls look at what they can achieve if they become professional footballers, is a huge thing.”
Graham Hansen wanted to be a pilot like her uncle when she was younger and she also played golf, a hobby she gave up when it started clashing with football. She is grateful for supportive parents who helped her chase her dream of playing professionally, which started with local side Stabaek, when many told her it was impossible.
At Stabaek, alongside playing for the women’s team, she trained with the men’s teams before, via a brief spell in Sweden, getting her big move to Wolfsburg at the age of 19.
Things were not always as easy in Germany. Persistent knee injuries threatened to derail her career, keeping her off the pitch in a foreign country which she had moved to on her own. She recognizes that period as being tougher than a moment she had last November, when a heart scare ruled her out for over a month.
“I could not depend on my family anymore,” Graham Hansen said of her decision to go to Germany by herself. “It was my choice, and I had to own it. If it was going to be tough, it’s my choice, nobody pushed me to do it. There are hard moments. It’s difficult for everyone who moves away for the first time. You have to learn how to live all over again at the same time as learning a new culture and a new language.You’re treated as an adult, when maybe you’re still a kid.It’s a lot of things that make you grow up fast.”
Graham Hansen also spoke about how talking to a psychologist helped her through some of those dark days. She came out the other side stronger, going on to win three Bundesliga titles in a row with Wolfsburg, and was ready for the criticism she faced for moving to Barca in 2019.
At that point, Barca were only an emerging force in the women’s game. They had not won a league title since 2015 and their decision to move to Spain was viewed as a financial one. Her performances by Ella on the pitch have since silenced that line of thought.
“I knew this team had so much quality and I wanted to be part of that journey,” she said. “The Champions League defeat [to Lyon in 2019] it was kind of the turning point for everyone. I was new, but I heard a lot about how things changed, especially physically. That has been the key because if we’re fit enough, no one is going to beat us in the way we play. That is how good we are. This is the kind of confidence that we have in our own game.
“We have a coach [Jonatan Giraldez] who is crazy to push us in every training session, to find the small details where we can be competitive in every aspect of the game. Finding hunger in the way you work every day is the only way to keep competing.”
Ballon d’Or Féminin winner Alexia Putellas speaks about the importance of International Women’s Day.
Despite trophy after trophy, there have been occasional lows at Barca. Last November, just days after Sergio Aguero was diagnosed with a heart problem that would force him to retire, club doctors also detected that Graham Hansen had an irregular heartbeat.
“It’s a big scare,” she said. “I think for everyone, when you read the headlines of heart trouble, for any athlete, it’s a scare. For me, it was surreal. Everything went very fast. The club took very good care of me and made sure I was never scared .I got the information I needed to have when it was ready.From there I got the best care to solve my problem.I was lucky to have a condition that was not career-threatening.But it is scary — and maybe scarier for the family around me.”
Graham Hansen has since picked up where she left off after a month out of the team, and part of her brilliance on the pitch lies in her in-game intelligence. Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola is influenced by chess, and Graham Hansen, who played in chess tournaments as a kid, spoke in-depth about the similarities the game has with football.
“It’s like a tactical part of using your brain in a different way,” she said. “I play more sporadically now than before, but it’s a nice way to compete and have fun with my friends that also play.
“Every move you make has a consequence or an opportunity. But you always must think offense and defense in the way you play, because every attack may counterattack you in three moves. It’s the same in football. How much risk will you take in terms Of how much space you’re going to leave behind to be attacked? There are a lot of tactical aspects you have to consider. Of course, it’s also very different, but in a way of analyzing or mentalizing around the topic of tactics, you can take a lot from chess.”
This week, Graham Hansen will be playing football. If Camp Nou is full as expected, it will break the attendance record for a club game in women’s football, and these occasions will help Graham Hansen with her wider objectives: Making sure girls don’t have to wait until they are 14 to realize that a career in football is a possibility.