Friday 30 November 2018, 07:25

Norway skipper talks emotions, ambitions and free-kick magic

  • Maren Mjelde is the captain of Norway’s women’s national team

  • The Norwegians beat the Netherlands to qualify for France 2019

  • Mjelde speaks about her hopes and bittersweet World Cup memories

“Even now, I get emotional talking about it.”

Maren Mjelde is in conversation with, and talk has turned to her wonderful free-kick at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup™. The Norway captain laughs as she admits to having tried, and failed, to replicate it countless times in the three-and-a-half years since.

But the lump in Mjelde’s throat cannot be attributed to the quality of the strike, nor its significance in a 1-1 draw with Germany. Instead, she remembers the context in which it was scored, with her mother - who was battling cancer at the time, and to whom the goal was dedicated - in the stands to see it hit the net.

Now, with her mother having won that particular battle and Norway heading to the Women’s World Cup once again, those bittersweet emotions have turned to pure joy. Mjelde has every reason to smile too, after a preliminary campaign in which her Norway side beat the Netherlands on a dramatic final day to pip the European champions to automatic qualification.

Memories of that achievement were still fresh as the Chelsea midfielder looked ahead with hope and excitement to her team’s French adventure. Maren, congratulations on making it to the Women’s World Cup. Did the way you qualified, and beating the European champions to do it, make the achievement all the more satisfying? Maren Mjelde: Definitely. We knew from the EURO how tough the Dutch would be, and with Republic of Ireland getting better and better, it was a really tough group. The way we started too, losing 1-0 to an injury-time goal in Holland, made it extra tough. We pretty much knew that left us needing to win every game from then on in. But we adapted well to that challenge, and tried to make sure that when we came to play Holland again, it would be like a final. That’s the way it turned out and, when that match came around, everyone was ready. I don’t think the Dutch were prepared for what was coming, and the fact that we were 2-0 up inside six minutes kind of shows that! It was a great performance and probably one of the biggest and best moments of my career.

You’re the captain of the team, of course. Has it come naturally do you, taking on that leadership role? It’s felt natural. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy job but it’s one I’m very proud to have. I also feel I’m doing the job with so much support from the other players and the coaches, and that makes it so much easier.

What kind of captain are you? Are you the kind who barks instructions, or who leads more by example? I’m not someone who shouts a lot. But I don’t mind doing it when necessary and, because it doesn’t happen often, I think other players do take notice when I do have to do it. Generally though, I try to lead in a calm way and make people believe in themselves. I am demanding, but I prefer to speak to people in a constructive way whenever I can.

Norway, of course, are one of a small and select group of nations that have won the Women’s World Cup. Do you find that legacy of 1995 inspires the current generation, or can it be a burden at times? The players all know that we have such a strong tradition in Norway and the fact we won the World Cup is a source of a lot of pride for all of us. But we also recognise that 1995 was a long time ago and that so much has changed in the women’s game since then. Looking ahead to next year’s World Cup, for example, I have no clue who will win because there are so many really top teams in women’s football now. So while we have great traditions and we want to live up to those, it’s definitely harder than ever because teams who were nowhere back in the 90s are really major forces now. We’re feeling really positive about ourselves after our qualifying campaign though, and the feeling is ‘Why can’t we do something special?’ The gap is so narrow at the top now that I feel anyone can beat anyone, and the EURO was a good example of that. That unpredictability is a great thing for women’s football – it makes it really exciting.

Speaking about the EURO, you obviously had a very disappointing campaign, returning home without winning a point or scoring a goal. Can we expect better from Norway in France? I’m sure of that. Losing all of our games, coming away with zero points and zero goals, was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a football player. But I think we’ve come out stronger than ever from it. We took the time to assess and learn from what went wrong, and most importantly we’ve done what was needed to put things right. We’ve improved a lot.

You had a very good group phase at the last World Cup, winning two and drawing against Germany, but then went out to England in the last 16. Looking back, how do you reflect on that tournament? With good memories and bad memories. The really sore part was that we should have won against England. That has stayed in my mind ever since and still annoys me. But hopefully, like the EURO, it will be a lesson we can take with us to France. World Cups are special. They’re the biggest thing you can participate in as a footballer, and you need to make the most of them when they come around. I definitely want to go further than we did last time.

Maren Mjelde #6 of Norway celebrates her goal on a direct kick with team mates during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Group B match between Germany and Norway.

Can you tell us about your goal against Germany in Canada, and the emotions that surrounded it? I remember I had been practising free-kicks the whole month leading up to the World Cup, and I could not have hit that one any better than I did. I’ve actually been trying ever since and never managed a free-kick as perfect as that one. So, to do it in a World Cup, in a game like that, you can’t get much better. And yes, it was very emotional for me because in the year leading up to the World Cup my mum had been diagnosed with cancer. She’s fine now fortunately – she’s through all that and healthy again - but it was a worrying time. Even now, I get emotional talking about - but it’s good emotions these days at least. My parents were in the stands to see that goal and it made it extra special because we had gone through a lot together during that period.

It’s great to hear that your mum is healthy again. Can we assume that she’ll be back at the World Cup next year, cheering you on with the rest of your family? Of course! My family have been almost more excited than me at Norway qualifying. As soon as we see the draw, and know the groups and the cities we’ll be playing in together, my parents will be the first to book up – and they’ll be bringing all their friends too. They can’t wait. And neither can I!