Twenty-five-year-old Pernille Harder may well have established herself as the best player in the world amid hot competition from a growing pool of talented female footballers around the world. Despite missing out on the top three for the recent FIFA Best Awards, Harder was named UEFA’s Player of the Year for 2018 after another stellar year for both her club Wolfsburg and country Denmark.
Still young, Harder has come a long way from kicking a ball around in the small town of Ikast where she was born, but perhaps was always destined to play football given both her parents played, as well as her sister. “My sister got called up to a youth camp and I basically wanted that because my sister did it,” says Harder. “I’ve always kind of looked up to my sister, but she stopped playing football and I moved on with my career.”
The next two decades would see Harder become one of the most well-known names in the women’s game. Highlights already include a hat-trick on her senior Denmark debut at the age of 16, a goal in a European Championship final and Champions League final in the space of 12 months, as well as several major trophies and personal accolades.
But for a girl growing up in a town of around 15,000 people, it felt a long way away for Harder when she was young, though she admits she knew she had talent from an early age. “I don’t know how old I was but I felt quite early I was maybe a little bit better than the other girls in my team. I wrote something at school when you were asked about what you want to do in life. I think I was maybe 10 and I wrote I wanted to be a professional footballer in Germany and play for Denmark.”
Like many others, Harder’s route into the game wasn’t simple at a time when pathways for girls playing football were nowhere near as advanced as they are 20 years on. “Like everyone I played with boys probably until I was about 10,” she recalls. “I practised with the academy at FC Midtjylland during high school and I always played with guys on the street where I lived or in our gardens. Me and my sister were the only girls. I enjoyed it, though. The practice I got when I was older, especially with the guys from the academy was a time I learnt a lot so it was really good for me.”
Her father was an avid Manchester United fan; Harder also recalls fond memories of watching the team managed by Sir Alex Ferguson with her fellow Dane Peter Schmeichel as she was growing up and making her own way in the football world. “We grew up as Manchester United fans because my dad was and is a big Manchester United fan. I remember Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Roy Keane, but that was more because my dad talked about him a lot. I remember the goal Giggs scored when he dribbled from the middle of the field, that was a really nice goal.”
Harder was quickly making a name for herself in Denmark. Twenty-two goals in 27 games for IK Skovbakken in Denmark’s top division, the Elitedivisionen, saw the top Scandinavian clubs come after her in 2012, three years after she’d already made her international debut. Just a year after she’d been playing under-17 football for her country, Harder was called up by head coach Kenneth Heiner-Möller for a match against Georgia at the age of just 16.
A crushing 15-0 win and a hat-trick for the teenager later, Harder had announced herself to the wider women’s football community. “It was really special,” she says. “I was so nervous before the game. It was not a difficult game but of course I was really nervous. But when you score a hat-trick and everything goes perfectly it’s the most special feeling, to play for your national team is the biggest thing you can do.”
Harder admits she’s not always nervous before games, something which comes naturally with age and experience but says she’s always excited no matter what the occasion. “I always have excitement. I’m not dead nervous like that anymore but I’m always excited and I think that’s a good thing, it means you care about it and you want to win these games.”
Three years on and fully established as an international for her country, Harder moved to Swedish side Linköping in a bid to help the side overthrow the stranglehold Tyresö FF and Rosengård had on Swedish football. A respectable third in 2012 saw them still finish well below their rivals in terms of points before another third in 2013 and fourth in 2014 saw the side continuously fall short despite Tyresö falling into financial ruin and dropping out of the league.
Fourth again in 2015 followed but Harder had become one of the top strikers in the league, scoring 17 goals in 22 matches that season. In 2016, forming a lethal strike partnership with Swede Stina Blackstenius, Linköping finally got their hands on the Damallsvenskan and finished an impressive ten points clear of nearest rivals Rosengård. “It was a really cool development to be a part of,” recalls Harder. “When I came in Martin Sjögren was the new coach and he found a lot of young talented players from around Sweden. I had four years there where we developed as individuals and as a team because we had the same team for four years.
“We went from number five in Sweden to number one. If you take a game from 2012 and 2016 it would be totally different. That year we were dominating all the games and playing really good football. It was the most special title because we had been together for four years, it was a very special development.”
With the title under her belt and Harder now 24, a league winner and already amassing 50 caps for her country, she was now not just receiving attention from the top clubs in Scandinavia but the rest of Europe too. Recalling the note she wrote at school, Harder got her dream of playing in Germany when she agreed to join Wolfsburg in time for the second half of the 2016/17 Bundesliga campaign. “I wanted to play in Germany,” she says. “I think it’s the best league and Wolfsburg because they’re one of the best in Europe. I wanted to go to a team where the expectation was to win titles because it wasn’t when I joined Linköping. I felt I’d learnt all I could in Sweden and Germany gave me new experiences.”
She hasn’t been let down. After just 18 months in Germany she has won the domestic double twice and played in last season’s Champions League final, with Wolfsburg falling agonisingly short against Lyon. Despite that, Harder knows she’s more than justified her decision. “It has been a perfect move for me. I’ve won the league twice, the cup twice and we went to the Champions League final. That’s something I really want to win and I hope I still can with Wolfsburg.”
Harder certainly did her best to make it happen earlier this year. With French side Lyon looking for their third straight European title, Wolfsburg held their own to take the game into extra-time at 0-0. Harder’s deflected effort put the German side 1-0 and it looked for a few brief minutes as if they would end the domination Lyon had over the rest of Europe.
But a number of factors, including Alex Popp’s red card and the fact Wolfsburg had played another 120-minute cup final just days earlier, saw the side crumble to a 4-1 defeat as Lyon sent on flying winger Shanice van de Sanden who changed the game in a matter of minutes.
Looking back on the match, Harder admits maybe her side should have been a bit more defensive after scoring the opener, even throwing out a bit of English lingo to justify her point. “You’re so tired,” she says. “This game was so crazy. We were 1-0 up and five minutes later we were done. When you look back after we got the red card we should have maybe parked the bus as you say in England. We were tired, we were a man down, we’d had a tough schedule and I think we just died out there. They put Van de Sanden in and she made a big difference. It was tough to be 1-0 up and then five minutes later be 3-1 down. I don’t like to park the bus but maybe then we should have just defended.”
Regarding the mental fatigue a major cup final takes out of you, Harder added: “It takes a lot. We’d had the cup final four days earlier and you give the last bit of energy you have and when it’s done everything goes out of you. You’re crazy tired and it takes some days to move on but that’s the way football is.” The defeat to Lyon was Harder’s second major cup final defeat in 12 months, but in both the forward had proven to be a star.
In August 2017, Harder’s Denmark side surprised Europe by reaching the Euro 2017 final where they would face hosts Netherlands, a team they’d already played in the group stages of the tournament. A significantly different achievement given Denmark, now coached by Nils Nielsen, were viewed as rank outsiders for the tournament, even Harder admits going so far was a surprise.
“I don’t think that was the expectation we had,” she recalls. “It was the dream, of course, that’s always the dream but I don’t think anyone had those expectations of us. It was a difficult group we were in but when we made it to the quarter-finals we had to take it one game at a time.”
After navigating what was indeed a difficult group with hosts Netherlands, Norway and Belgium, Denmark were dealt Germany in the quarter-finals. Having won an incredible six tournaments in a row dating back to 1995, Germany were heavy favourites for the match as they looked to continue a remarkable run of success. But it was Denmark who upset the odds, beating Steffi Jones’ side 2-1 and bringing their nation to the attention of the world by reaching the semi-finals and knocking out the giants of European football.
“After that game it was like ‘now we have to go to the final’,” she says. “We had some coaches who prepared a lot for the tactical side of the Germany game. When you have no expectation you can go out freely and play. With Germany, everyone thinks they have to win and they will win but we had nothing to lose. There was a change in our heads that we had to do this now.”
And they did. A nervy penalty shootout victory against Austria ensured Harder, captain of her nation, would lead out her country on the biggest European stage of them all and a rematch against the hosts. “You try and prepare like it’s a normal game. You have the same schedule. You wake up, you eat. I like to go out and relax and not think about the game so much. Have fun with your teammates and try not to get too excited too early. The first time I try and think about the game is when I go to the bus.”
A thrilling first half saw Nadia Nadim give Denmark an early lead before Harder herself equalised with a superb solo goal after the Dutch had replied with two goals of their own. With the game tied at 2-2 at the break, the hosts powered through with the partisan home crowd behind them to win the tournament for the first time in front of their own fans and leave Harder and her teammates with a silver medal.
Despite the defeat, Harder is proud to see the impact the run has had in her home country. “The first half was a crazy good game but the second half the Netherlands were just better,” she admits. “It was a great experience and we did a lot for football in Denmark. It was incredible to see the difference in Denmark before we went and when we came back. Before they knew about us but when we came home the whole of Denmark knew about us and respected us. It was not like ‘Oh, women play football, it became cool for a little girl to play football and that’s important.”
The 12 months since though has not been easy on Denmark. Nielsen left his post after the tournament and a dispute over pay soon started with the DBU. The dispute continued and escalated to the point Denmark refused to play their 2019 World Cup qualifier against Sweden, leaving their opponents to pick up the three points after UEFA punished the side for not fulfilling the fixture.
It has left Denmark, now coached by Lars Søndegaard, needing to win two playoffs to even make it to France next year, and incredibly it’s the Netherlands who once again stand in their way as the two countries prepare to do battle across two games. “A lot has happened,” says Harder. “We had the conflict with the federation but we have had good results since then. We have a new coach and we have learnt some good stuff from him but now we are in the playoffs. We have to take one game at a time and hopefully we can go to the next round.”
With one of the two European finalists guaranteed to miss out and Denmark having been absent from the tournament for over a decade, many people would love to see Harder show her talents on the greatest stage of them all before it’s too late, including Harder herself. “I would love to play at a World Cup. I want to play all the tournaments I can with my national team and that experience from last year I want again because it will be even better at a World Cup.”
For now, though, Harder can only wait and rest before Friday’s crunch match. Clearly a relaxed individual, her personal website lists some of the music she listens to before a match. While many players go for music that will get them pumped up for a game, Harder says she simply listens to music pre-match to make her happy. “I listen to songs to make me happy or make me want to dance. Not techno dance but just to listen to songs that make happy.”
Expanding on her personality, Harder says: “I’m down to earth. I love to be with my family and friends. I can be a little clumsy, I like to have fun, laugh a lot and do crazy stuff sometimes but I’m really down to earth. That’s the way my family have brought me up.”
Harder’s talent and reputation have undoubtedly made her a role model for young girls growing up all around the world now, not just at home in Denmark. “I enjoy it. It’s such a good thing we can idols for girls and boys. It doesn’t have to be Messi or the idols I had. They were men’s players but now we can be idols too and that’s really cool.”
Harder admits she did have one female role model growing up though, one she probably shares with quite a few women’s footballers her age. “Marta. She was my female idol when I was little, she’s brilliant.”
There have been challenges along the way for Harder so far. When she left Linköping she left behind long-term partner, Sweden international Magdalena Eriksson, now at Chelsea. The pair have been in a very open relationship sometimes now and Harder says it is “natural” for her to be open and hopes the younger generation feel the same way.
“I don’t want to hide anything or be embarrassed about who I love,” she says. “It’s important we are open so boys and girls can see it’s ok to love the person you love whether it’s a man or a woman, it really doesn’t matter. I also think it’s a topic in society as a whole now. People talk a lot about it and in the women’s game there’s no problem, it’s more an issue in the men’s game. Football is a masculine sport so I guess that’s why it’s more of an issue.”
Women’s football as a whole still fights a battle every day to be taken seriously in the wider community and Harder and Denmark were just one of several nations to take on their federation in a fight for greater equality through the sport as a whole over the past 12 months. While Denmark finally came to an agreement with the DBU, others around the world are still struggling but the national team captain hopes the sport’s continuous growth helps the game continue to change over the next few years.
“It has changed a lot in five years and I think it will change more in the future. You see that we are not satisfied to not be accepted as the men are. We do something about it and when other teams someone’s doing something they react. It’s really important to take a stand. We use the same time, we sacrifice the same and it’s important those discussions are happening a lot.”
At just 25, Harder has just moved past the 100-cap mark for her country and has 53 goals, as well as three league titles and four cups from two different countries. Her individual honours include the Danish Player of the Year three years in a row, the golden boot in both Sweden and Germany, included for two years in a row in the Champions League team of the season, and also the European Championship all-star team.
Most recently she beat off fierce competition to win UEFA’s Player of the Year for the first time, but Harder herself says the accolades may feel a little more real when she retires. “That is always something you dream about when you’re little, to be one of the very best. I think I will realise it more when I stop. Right now, I’m in it and there’s a lot of good players, it’s crazy I’m number one in Europe but I just see it as a motivation to carry on working hard.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty