Feature | Football

Pernille Harder Exclusive: "I want to win the Champions League and claim titles in different countries"

Danish footballer Pernille Harder talks Champions League, future goals, being inspired by Marta, Covid-19 lockdown with girlfriend Magdalena Eriksson, and using that viral kiss to make the world a better place.

By Ken Browne ·

Bundesliga and German Cup double champion for the fourth year in a row, league top scorer, reaching 100 goals in a Wolfsburg football shirt, it's been another spectacular season for Pernille Harder.

And it may get even better.

The deadly Dane has a first UEFA Women's Champion's League title in her sights, and so much more.

"I want to win the Champions League, win titles in different leagues and play at the Olympics." - Pernille Harder

"I think that would be quite cool to say that I've won titles in different countries," she says.

Great news for fans of clubs hoping to land one of the best female players in the world right now, with rumours swirling that English Women's Super League champions Chelsea are keen to sweep in to take her to London to play alongside girlfriend Magdalena Eriksson, and Manchester United fans using the hashtag #Harder2020 to try and sway a move to the north of England instead.

For now, Harder is fully focussed on winning Europe's top club competition with Wolfsburg against Lyon after scoring goals in a 9-1 dismantling of Glasgow City in the quarters. She said that the positive thing about lockdown was being able to spend more time with Magda:

"Yeah, it was lovely. It was amazing to have so much time together, actually. So that was one good thing with corona, maybe the only one, because we don't have so much time together normally."

Denmark's star striker who was just named women's Footballer of the year in Germany sat down for a 40-minute videocall with Olympic Channel to talk about everything from being a girl inspired by Brazil's double Olympic silver medallist Marta, to becoming an inspiration herself on and off the pitch, driven "to always be the best."

"It's not the same without the fans"

There was perfect symmetry to Harder's contribution in the final stretch of the 19/20 Bundesliga.

She scored the first goal after the league reopened, before netting the final goal of a 5-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen, which underlined the green machine's domestic dominance.

Wolfsburg finished 12 points ahead of nearest rival Bayern Munich. Harder's 27 goals made her league's top scorer, while her eight assists demonstrated that she has extraordinary vision as well as a killer instinct.

They call her the 'no-look pass master', and the Dane showed once again why she is the most dangerous player in the German league right now.

Wolfsburg have lifted the league and cup double every single year since Harder's arrival halfway through the 2016/17 season, but this was the first time without fans.

"Yeah, it's different," Harder admits. "Of course, you miss the fans a lot. It's not the same. So I really hope that it will soon be possible to get the fans back in stadiums. When the game is going, we are focussed, but I will not lie and say that it's the same. It's not."

With the double in the bag, Wolfsburg are intent on making this a treble-winning season, with the Champions League up for grabs in Spain's Basque country.

Women's Champions League

Harder will not have to play against girlfriend Eriksson as Chelsea are not involved, but Wolfsburg will face plucky upstarts Glasgow City in the quarter-final. Should they overcome the Scottish side, then the winner of Barcelona-Atletico Madrid awaits them in the semi-final.

Harder would love to add a first Champions League to her bulging trophy cabinet, and the fact that the German league and cup competitions were already finished when many across Europe were abandoned due to the pandemic, could help Wolfsburg.

"Maybe it's an advantage," she says. "We have played many games and played games that matter, so yeah, that could maybe be something good for us."

Wolfsburg: Team of Olympic Champions

"I guess we are the the better team on the paper," says the striker, "but it's important that that we are all ready from the beginning and not thinking that we we already have won this game because Glasgow is in the quarter-final for a reason.

"We take that game a hundred percent seriously and we have to fight for a win also."

So should Wolfsburg come through a potential banana-skin tie against Glasgow, who would Harder prefer in the semi-finals between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona?

"Two Spanish teams, they play alike, so I don't know. Both teams are good and will be interesting, I can't say one team I prefer to be honest."

The format has changed due to the pandemic with all games being played in Spain's Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, and two-leg quarter-final and semi-final ties are now single game knockout affairs.

"We know when it's a tournament like this, it's one game, everything can happen."

And is she a fan of the changes?

"Maybe it makes it a bit more fun like this, but I think in the future I prefer it [to stay] the way it is. Now with corona, I think it's a good solution to finish the Champions League this season and we just take it as it is, make the best out of it and hopefully in the end we have the trophy."

Wolfsburg have a strong team with a potent blend of youth and experience, and as Harder points out, players who are used to playing - and winning - knock-out tournaments with their national teams.

"We have a lot of players who have played championships with their national teams, so we know how it is."

Wolfsburg are stacked with Olympic champions from Germany's Rio 2016 gold medal-winning team, including immovable striker and German national team captain Alexandra Popp, midfield bosses Lena Goessling and Lena Oberdorf, and current German national goalkeeper Almuth Shult.

Germany women's road to Olympic football gold at Rio 2016

Germany women's football team were crowned Olympic champions at Rio 2016. H...

Pernille Harder on watching Magda at Rio 2016

Harder watched that Olympic final in Rio closely, as her partner Magdalena Eriksson started on the bench for Sweden, coming on after 70 minutes.

"I think I had a lot of nerves," says Harder, "Magda was a young player back then (she was 22), and I think it was her first championship with the Swedish national team. So it was so big for her."

Sweden had knocked out the favourites USA earlier in the tournament and had a shot at gold in the final. They went a goal down to a wonder strike from Dzenifer Marozsan and were two down on 62' after an unfortunate Linda Sembrant own goal.

The team in yellow battled back into the game with a lovely team move and finish from Stina Blackstenius, but Germany held on at 2-1 to take home gold.

Eriksson came home with a silver medal from an Olympics. "She was happy," Harder continues. "I think she also needed time to understand. It was a big achievement from the Swedish national team. So, yeah, it took some time before she understood it. But she got it.

"So now it's just unbelievable that she has a silver medal from the Olympics. When I hear from her and her experience with the Olympics, of course, then it also make makes me want to try it also because it sounds so amazing, an amazing experience."

GER v SWE - Women's Football | Rio 2016 Replay

Women's Football Gold Medal Match in Rio 2016.Germany 2-1 Sweden.

Harder and Eriksson: 'Powerful Together'

The pair were already big names in the sport, with Harder winning the Swedish 'Damallsvenskan' league title in 2016 playing for Linköpings FC, and sharing a stage with Zlatan Ibrahimovic to collect the female footballer of the year award.

But it was at the World Cup 2019 when the players and their relationship really hit the headlines, thanks to that viral kiss.

"I just wanted to say congrats for the win against Canada," explains Harder, "and then we kissed. And a photographer got a photo of it, it went viral, and, yeah, suddenly I had almost 20,000 new followers and so many messages in my DM's (Direct Messages) on Instagram. It went crazy!"

Pernille and Magda talk about how that photo made them realise that they are 'powerful together,' and are using their platform to help change attitudes in the game.

They both donate from their salary to the Play Proud initiative through Common Goal, which aims to 'unite the global football community in tackling the greatest social challenges of our time', and make the sport a more inclusive place for people of different race, gender, sexuality, and nationality.

"We give one percent of our year's salary, it's not a lot when it's one percent and it's set for how much you earn, so everyone can be in it no matter how much you actually earn. I think it's cool, if a lot of football players go together to actually help the world to be better, to be a better world, then I think that's a really good initiative."

Other contributors to Common Goal include Liverpool men's team manager Jurgen Klopp and RB Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann. Players Mats Hummels and Serge Gnabry are also among those signed up.

"So many write to us and tell us how we have helped them to come out." - Pernille Harder to Olympic Channel

"Play Proud is also a really good organisation. They educate coaches to know and understand how to create an environment that's open-minded for homosexuality. To educate the young players to be open minded and understand that everyone should have the rights to succeed in life, no matter if you are gay, or, whatever you are, what skin color you have and all these things.

"And we think that's a really good organisation because it coaches young players, so they learn it at an early age. It's difficult to sometimes change the mindset for a person who is 30 or 20 years old. It's easier when they are when they're younger and not have built their identity yet."

The reaction has been very positive so far, she says.

"We have had a lot of good response. There's so many who write to us and tell us how we have helped them to come out. I think it's incredible to get these messages. And I can just imagine it because maybe when I was I was younger and there was an outlet, maybe if I had an idol that was so open about it, it would help me I think. So I think it's important that we be open about it and talk about it."

Pernille and Magda together again

One positive about the pandemic and the football hiatus was that the couple got to spend more time together, says Harder.

"Yeah, it was lovely. It was amazing to have so much time together, actually. So that was one good thing with corona, because we don't have so much time together normally. So this was really good." - Harder to Olympic Channel

"I cooked a lot when I was on my own in Germany," says Harder, recognising that when they're together, Magda is the chef.

"I cooked much more than I do now again," she laughs, as Magda came to Germany after her Chelsea team were crowned England's Super League champions.

"I also think Magda thinks it's good that I got some new recipes so I also do the food sometimes!

"The best I made was an Asian salad with shrimps. I had to be healthy when we couldn't practise so much! I did some banana bread and I tried to do some healthy cooking."

The two also helped each other to stay in shape during lockdown.

"Yeah. We trained a lot together. Especially in the beginning when we both were running. We did a lot of runs together, stayed fit. And it's good, it's nice we have each other in those moments and times so we can motivate each other."

Harder and Eriksson to play together in future?

So has this extra time together, while the world was put on pause by COVID-19, convinced them that they want to spend more time together? Both being based in England? Or playing together in future perhaps?

For now she's 100% focussed on Wolfsburg and what's now: Glasgow City.

But Harder is also excited by developments in other countries, where major clubs are investing more in the women's game. Real Madrid are the latest super club to add a professional women's team.

"The big clubs in Italy and Spain and in England, they get a women's team, they can afford this setup and that's why a lot of players want to go there," she says.

"And that's maybe a little of what I miss in Germany. Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich have really good setups but then there's not so many other teams who have has the same."

Wolfsburg's 2019/20 league title win was their fourth in-a-row, and the two clubs have shared the last eight league titles between them, six for Wolfsburg and two for Bayern.

Will two male footballers ever kiss like Pernille and Magda?

But back to that kiss, does Harder ever think she'll see two male footballers kiss post-match like she and Magda did?

"I think, first of all, one has to come out before two male football players will kiss each other. I hope so. I hope that at some point, the environment in men's football will change and just be more acceptable, open minded about this topic."

"But I also think that something has to be done. It will not be done by itself. Some campaigns, maybe some players coming out together, but I think something has to be set up, it's just not coming natural that it will change."

On July 11, 2020, a player from England's Premier League penned an anonymous letter saying he was gay but not ready to come out publicly saying, "Football isn't ready." He also called his day-to-day life 'an absolute nightmare'.

"It must must be awful to live with a lie like this and not be able to be himself," says Harder.

"So something has to change. And we have to talk about it. And. Yes. I hope that something, a big movement will happen like it has been now with Black Lives Matter, I kind of hope that something like this will happen with homosexuality and men's football also."

Pernille Harder's inspirations

Harder is an inspiration for many of the current generation of kids, but who inspired her as a young footballer?

"My whole family have always played football. My mum and dad, my big sister, my granddad. So, yeah, I just think they made me start to play and then I loved it and kept on playing."

Harder was the first to go pro, and her drive to be the best is legendary.

"I think I've always had this thing that I want to be the best of what I'm doing. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the best in the team. Then I started to have dreams, first of all, to play on the national team. Then, I saw some clips for Marta (da Silva)."

"She was so inspiring, she won the FIFA The Best award like five time in a row, I watched YouTube clips of her when I was a kid, I thought, wow, that would be cool, she was my biggest idol."

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"When I got older, I went to the to the national team games from Denmark and watch some of those players. I also got like two or three idols from from the national team like the captain at the time Katrine Pederson, and Johanna Rasmussen."

Harder's drive and dedication make her a natural leader and she was made Denmark's youngest national team captain ever at the age of 23.

In 2017, she skippered her side to the greatest moment in Danish women's football, stunning Olympic champs Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2017, and scoring brilliant solo goal in the final against the Netherlands. Despite that goal the Danes were overcome by a strong Dutch challenge.

It finished 4-2 to the Oranje, but Harder is still hugely proud of that moment.

"The biggest for us would be the Olympics"

Now 27, she is already the second-highest scorer in her nation's history with 61 goals, second only to Danish great Merete Pedersen who scored 65 between 1993–2009.

Averaging a goal every other game, it's a matter of time before Harder fells that record.

Despite her plethora of achievements to date, Harder sees the Olympic Games as her biggest goal.

"I want to play in as many championships as possible, of course, the biggest for us would be the Olympics, but it's also the most difficult."

The Danes have never qualified for the Olympics since the women's competition was added in Atlanta 1996, and qualifying from Europe is extremely tough with so many quality teams and just three places up for grabs.

The World Cup 2019 was won by the USA, and the other three semi-finalists were European. Those three are all heading to the Olympics in 2021: Netherlands, Sweden, and Great Britain.

We won't see Harder in the Tokyo Games as Denmark failed to qualify for the World Cup, but she's positive for the future.

"I think we have something good going on. We have a lot of young good players, but of course, they need some years to develop. I think that in a few years we will have a team that can compete in the big tournaments. And hopefully, first of all, we will qualify for the Euros and the next the World Cup, then the Olympics."

Fighting for women's football

One thing that motivated Pernille Harder as a girl was the negative things people said to her about women's football.

"When I said I play football," she remembers, "the guys said, like, oh you play 'kicking football', like we couldn't play. Like we just kick it and all run after it together."

Practically too, the women's game always came second where she grew up, and a young Pernille had to work harder than most to follow her dream of playing professionally.

"I always had to drive at least one hour to get to a club that was good, then, we never really got the good pitches. It was always you had to train at six o'clock and all these things that you, when you are there, you just accept it because that's the way it is. But when I look back, I can see now it was not acceptable."

"Just because we are women and maybe not as important for the club as the men's team, we got the worse times for pitches and, those were the big things that I felt when I was a kid and wanted to get better. There were not as many possibilities to get great facilities like girls academies and things like that."

Harder believed from a young age that she had a special talent and could be the best in the world, but didn't dare say that out loud until she left Denmark for Sweden's Team Viborg at the age of 15.

"I think the reason why I didn't say it where I grew up, maybe was because I felt like people would look a bit strange at me, if I said I want to be the best in the world in football when I'm a woman."

But she turned adversity into motivation.

"Yeah, to prove them wrong. And also that's what motivates me now to change. Change the set up the young kids have now in Denmark because I know how it is not to have the best possibilities to get as good as possible. That motivates me to to change the mindset back home."

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The future of women's football: "I'm excited"

The women's game has taken giant strides in the past few years, and Harder is upbeat about the future.

"Yeah, I'm really excited. I think a lot will happen in the next five, 10 years. I think what's most important is that more clubs get a professional setup, that's what most players are searching for, and to be able to have a professional contract so you can really play football."

Spanish giants Real Madrid will debut their women's team in La Liga de Fútbol Femenino this season.

"That's what I'm talking about," says Harder. "That a team like Real Madrid, they get a women's team and I have a good friend who plays there, (German defender) Babett Peter, and she tells me how good the setup is.

"Maybe the team is not the best right now. But when the setup is good, then it will attract more good players. So maybe two or three years, they will have a really good team. It's all about money. Real Madrid, they have the money to to make this possible."

So what would Harder say to girls and young women now who wear her name on the back of their shirts, dreaming of one day being like her?

"I would say that they should have big dreams and big goals. I think if you can play football, if you have some kind of talent, if you have the mentality and the drive, motivation, then everyone can achieve something big with football. It's all about if you believe in it, then if you want to work for it."