FEATURES INTERVIEWS

IN CONVERSATION WITH PERNILLE HARDER, ONE OF THE BEST PLAYERS IN THE WOMEN’S GAME

An exclusive interview with Danish footballer Pernille Harder on life in her home country, experiences in Sweden, her current time in Germany with Wolfsburg and more.

Pernille Harder is 26 years old and is one of the best players in the women’s game. The Danish international, who started her career a little over a decade ago, has come a long way from her hometown of Ikast and her reputation keeps growing. Harder’s CV is mightily impressive. In her relatively short career, she has won three Bundesliga titles and three German Cups with Wolfsburg, the Damallsvenskan and Swedish Cup in with Linköpings in Sweden, reached the final of the Women’s Champions League and the European Championships and her personal haul includes three Danish Footballer of the Year awards and the UEFA Best Player in Europe award, won in August 2018.

Perhaps more importantly, though, she’s a role model to thousands of young girls and women around the world, encouraging them to play the game and making an impact in the modern world. Her story to the top is interesting, and in an exclusive interview with her, she reveals it all.

Given Harder’s background and upbringing, it’s no surprise to see that she is so well-revered in the game. Football is in her blood, and she was seen with or around a ball from a young age. “My mom and dad both played football when they were younger, and my dad was the coach for my mom later on and also for my big sister, who is four years older than me and also plays football. She had been playing on a high level until she reached senior football and has also been playing different teams. It has always been football in the family, and I started to play really early – almost as soon as I could start walking! I guess I was around four or five years old when I started.”

She has been part of the Danish national team which has been making huge waves in international football in recent years, playing impressive football and even going as far as the final of the European Championships in 2017 – their best ever performance in the competition. She’s part of a revolution that has seen more girls and young women take up football. Having grown up seeing football take the back seat in her country, the recent growth in the popularity of the sport in her country is something she takes huge pride in.

“Women’s football has been developing a lot after the Euros in 2017; it has been much more popular with the Danish people. When I started playing football in Denmark, it was not at all popular, it was more like an ‘outsider’ amongst other sports in Denmark. But with time, we have got more and more focus on us. The big difference was after the Euros in 2017, when we reached the final – there was so much talk around us and about us and since then, we have become idols for a lot of young girls.”

Euro 2017
HARDER LED DENMARK ALL THE WAY TO THE FINAL OF THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS IN 2017 – THEIR BEST-EVER DISPLAY IN THE COMPETITION

Her journey to her current club, Wolfsburg in Germany, has been long and adventurous. Despite coming from a football family, she too has plenty of fascinating tales as to how she reached this point. Harder made her debut for the Danish senior national team in 2009 at the tender age of 16, where she showed no signs of nervousness and bagged a hat-trick in a crushing 15-0 win over Georgia.

Prior to that glorious day, there were several twists and journeys for her. “I started when I was five-years-old, in a local club called Tulstrup, where in the first year I practiced and played with boys and all of us were around ten years old. Then, there was a girls’ team in the town and my mom was the coach and then after that, I moved to a bigger club which was one hour away from my hometown, to play in a better team and in the best league for my age. After that, I moved to Skovbakken, when I was a senior player. After high school, I moved to Linköpings, before joining Wolfsburg, where I have been for the last two-and-a-half years.”

Due to the lack of interest from young girls towards football, she recalls training with the boys of the FC Midtjyalland academy – one of the most popular clubs in Denmark – and it was an experience she cherishes. “When I was in high school, I practiced twice a week with boys from the FC Midtjyalland academy; [at that time] I was playing for Skovbakken in the afternoons. It was really good practice. In those three years, I learned a lot football-wise and there were some really good coaches, and of course, the tempo was high which meant I had to perform well in every single training, so those were some really good years for me.”

Having played in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany – three nations where football is either emerging or is already a powerhouse in the women’s game in Europe – she has experienced various tactical systems and nuances. Each country has a different way of playing, a different set-up to adapt to and as a forward herself, it could be said that she has her work cut out, as she has to adapt as quickly as possible in order to achieve the best possible results. Harder has succeeded wherever she has played and explains the differences in each country distinctly.

“In Denmark, we talk a lot about possession with the ball, having the ball all the time. We don’t talk so much about the defending, but there’s a lot of talk about tactics and keeping the ball in offence. I think a lot of Danish players are good with their feet. In Sweden, it’s more physical and there they talk a lot about defending. Sometimes, the ball goes quite fast ahead but in the team I played in, we had a really good coach, Martin Sjögren, who is the coach of Norway now. We played some really good football and the way we developed with the team over these four-and-a-half years was amazing.”

Harder continues to talk about football in Germany, where she has felt the biggest change: “In Germany, this was a bit different from Sweden. In Sweden, we try a lot of zonal defending, whereas in Germany, there’s more man-marking and I felt that right away when I moved and of course as a forward, it’s a bit different, but it’s also something I developed [to play against]. In Germany [at most clubs], you also want to go forward fast, but in Wolfsburg, we want to play with the ball and that’s important for me.”

Her experiences in Sweden were unique. She joined her club, Linköpings, in 2012, who themselves were just nine years old at the time and were looking to make an impact in a country where the women’s game is well-respected. She was part of a successful phase at the club and this was a crucial experience for her, seeing as it was her first spell abroad.

“I had some really good years with Linköpings, we developed a lot over these four-and-a-half years. When Martin became the head coach in 2013, he got some really good young players from Sweden to the club like Fridolina Rolfö, Magdalena Eriksson, Jessica Samuelsson and Stina Blackstenius. There were a lot of good young players and over these four years, we developed individually and as a team, because we had almost the same squad over this time and in 2016, we ended up winning the league.”

She goes on to speak about the success of the team and heaps great praise on her coach at the club, who she cites as a crucial figure in her career: “When I came to Linköpings, we were around the top five. To go on to be the top team was amazing. It was my first title and a title that I will never forget. Martin Sjögren has taught me a lot about football, from tactics to everything about how my game is and how exactly I’m at my best on the field. He helped me find that out and he’s a good coach.”

PH Sweden
PLAYING IN SWEDEN WAS AN IMPORTANT EXPERIENCE FOR HARDER

Women’s football has grown immensely over the last decade, and one evidence of that is the increase in big federations and organizations offering more awards to players and coaches. UEFA and FIFA have recently added more awards for the women’s game, and having won the UEFA Best Player in Europe award in 2018 and finishing second to Ada Hegerberg in the running for the inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin by France Football, she is happy to see there is more individual recognition by key institutions and publications.

“I think a lot has happened for women’s football in recent years. The last few years, these awards have been important. If we get the same awards as the men, we will be named in the same articles, in the same news. When Luka Modrić won The Best FIFA Men’s Player award, it proved these awards were important. With these awards, there is more focus given to us and it seems as though more federations want awards for women’s football, so I hope we keep on developing in the future.”

Whilst being successful individually, she has also seen silverware at club-level with her side, Wolfsburg. Harder joined the German outfit in 2017 and hasn’t looked back since. In her time there, she has broken records at individual and club level and has enjoyed some memorable times.

“It has been two-and-a-half really good years at Wolfsburg. The first half-year, I used to adapt to the team and to the German way of playing. It went quite fast. The last two years have been good – we dealt with a lot as a team. This year we won the most points in Wolfsburg’s history, and that’s really cool. I went to Wolfsburg to play in the Champions League and of course, playing in the final in 2018 was a big thing, and unfortunately, we didn’t win. I’m sure we’ll be there again – hopefully next year – and I’ll do everything to win that title.”

Losing in the Champions League final to Lyon in 2018 was a major disappointment for Harder and Wolfsburg. Having been so successful in Germany, winning Europe’s biggest prize would’ve been a great honour for a club so committed to the women’s game. In 2019, they fell to their nemesis once again, losing in the quarter-final stage this time as Lyon went on to win the tournament again. Seeing as she has been so close once, Harder believes that her time in Europe’s biggest competition will come and she has high hopes for the future.

“Lyon is a really good team – they have a lot of good players on the field and on the bench in all positions and I think we can beat them, but of course, they have beaten us over the last two years and they have been doing well in the two times we played them. I hope we can develop even more and then we can hopefully beat them next time. We’ll do everything we can – I think we have a good enough team to do it. There’s a lot of aspects such as our mentality and how good we are on the day we play them.”

This year’s Women’s World Cup will undoubtedly be the most popular edition in the competition’s history. With several nations returning, several debutants and a greater overall focus towards the women’s game in recent years, it is a tournament many will pay keen attention towards.

Unfortunately for Harder, Denmark did not qualify for the tournament. Despite missing out, Harder is optimistic about the World Cup and has her own expectations. “It’s really sad not to be at the World Cup. It will be a little tough, but that’s the way it is. I’m looking forward to seeing Sam Kerr – a really good player who I haven’t seen live. I’m also looking forward to seeing some teams I don’t get to see so much such as the USA – I mean we’ve played [against each other] a few times, but it’s not a team I know as much as some other European teams.”

Furthering on her time with the national team, she describes the European Championships in 2017 as one of her finest experiences and speaks candidly about it. “My best experience with the national team was, of course, the Euros in 2017 – it was a crazy experience when we went all the way to the final. Unfortunately, we lost in the final, but it was such a great tournament for the whole team.”

She adds: “It made a big difference how popular women’s football became after the Euros in 2017 – it was a great tournament and we took it one game at a time. After we beat Germany in the quarter-final, we really felt that we could go to the final. Then we played Austria, it was a tough game. It finished equal and then in the shoot-outs, our goalkeeper did well, and the attackers scored the goals they had to. And then of course, in the final, we did well in the first-half, but in the second-half, we were tired and in the end, the Netherlands were the better team.”

Harder UEFA BP
IN 2018, HARDER WON THE UEFA BEST PLAYER IN EUROPE AWARD

Outside of football itself, Harder is a fun-loving, family-oriented figure. Having shown great responsibility on the pitch, leading her country and inspiring each club she has played at, she leads her life well when not around a football, giving her the perfect recipe for success when she indeed is around one. “Off the field, I just enjoy life. I love to eat good food and have a good time with my family and friends. I also love to travel a lot and see different countries.”

With the game in her blood and having played it for such a long time with a family that is equally as engrossed, she says it’s something she was always going to have a career in. “If I didn’t play football, I’m not sure what I would do. I’ve always had football as my dream and what I’ve wanted to work with. So, if I couldn’t play, I would probably be a coach or something.” Having learned from many great coaches, including her own father, it wouldn’t be too silly to suggest she’ll go into coaching in the future herself and possibly even do well.

And of course, just like so many other players in the modern era, she’s looking forward to what the future has in store for the women’s game. She is optimistic for the sport, for her prospects and wants to be a part of it all. “I think a lot will happen with the women’s game. We have seen what has happened over the last few years and I think people have started to see the potential. I think in the next five or ten years, a lot will happen and I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, I am still playing for many years and hopefully, I will be a part of a big development in women’s football. My biggest personal goal is to win titles with the club and with my country”

There seems to be no doubt that Pernille Harder is here for the long run. She has already achieved so much in her career and it is certain that there is more to come in the future. She continuously raises the bar with her performances on the pitch, and having inspired so many around the world, she is one of the most influential figures in modern football.

BY KARAN TEJWANI