Caroline Graham Hansen interview: ‘Let the drummer tell your heart what to do’ – Rhythm’s the only ruler in Caro’s kingdom

Photo: VfL Wolfsburg / RS24/Darius Simka

Foraging on with intent is what VfL Wolfsburg’s Norwegian winger Caroline Graham Hansen does best, with the grandest of competitions set to populate itinerary and imagination alike over the weeks and months to come. Beyond the summer, much like when the ball is under her command, she could go left, she could go right, but possibility will always follow.

Faced with perennial champions Germany in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2013 final, Norway took it to their opponents in Solna in late-July with a youthful forward line. Kristine Wigdahl Hegland (now Kristine Minde) was the ‘veteran’ at 20, alongside central striker Ada Hegerberg and her fellow 18-year-old Caroline Graham Hansen over on the far side.

On a day that went Germany’s way by a goal to nil, ‘Caro’ Graham Hansen had briefly renewed hope when she slipped between Dzsenifer Marozsán and Jennifer Cramer to win the second Norwegian penalty of the game. In the five-and-a-half years since, the rangy, silky forward talent has taken some considerably harder hits, by way of long-term injury lay-offs, though she has ultimately sprung right back up to resume her top-level endeavours in an impressive young career.

Having had to sit out the 2015 World Cup, and following a desperately below-par Euro 2017 from Norway, she is yearning to be there to help ensure her country can make their mark again this summer in France. At club level, her VfL Wolfsburg lead the Frauen-Bundesliga on goal difference – Caro struck the fifth in Sunday’s 6-0 win over Werder Bremen – and there is the genuine prospect of three major trophies in the next three months.

Although she most typically weaves mischief from out wide, Caro’s awareness and adaptability are such that she can also operate centrally. Off the field, a rumbling hunger for knowledge, personal development and creative release stirs for the 24-year-old.

While world-class concentration and discipline are required for some of her pursuits, another of her best-loved interests is altogether less high maintenance. It is there in the ups, the downs, in togetherness and in solitude, as she describes.

Music has this magical way about it where it can speak to you through your emotions. If it’s also good lyrics to the song, you can relate to them, and it can maybe put words on something that is not easy for you to put words to, if things are going down.

“If things are going good, then you can just flow to the music, the lyrics kind of explain themselves for you, and you will just feel even better about an already good situation. I listen to a lot of different kinds; the most important thing is that the lyrics are good, combined with a good beat.

“I always loved Green Day; that’s one of the bands I’ve listened to the most. I really like Justin Timberlake, and also some Norwegian ones called Karpe Diem, so that’s like my three favourites.”

Photo: VfL Wolfsburg / RS24/Darius Simka

Many of us have a favourite band or artist, and beyond enjoying their work, we may even identify with what they embody and feel they represent us almost as if they were our football team. Whether it was in Oslo, Oregon or Orpington, Green Day gave those blankets of identity to so many in the 90s, and for the waves of new fans that followed thereafter.

In the Californian band’s album timeline, Caro was born after ‘Dookie’ but a few months before ‘Insomniac,’ and a good couple of years before ‘Nimrod’! When she discovered them as she was growing up, that feeling of ‘they play for me’ struck hard and true.

She recalls the very beginning of her album-owning, with the band’s hugely successful 2004 release.

“I still remember when I bought it – ‘American Idiot.’ I know almost all the lyrics and all the beats on that album.

“I listened to it too many times.”

Not a player exists in football history for whom it has worked every time, but someone on your team who guarantees a genuine chance of a match-changing moment for as long as they are out there is timelessly valuable. Caro’s close control and agility are key to a style that sees her whip away at defensive barricades with deft elegance, but there is more than the artistic repertoire alone.

As Norway dismantled Northern Ireland 3-0 in Portadown in a World Cup qualifier last April, she burst through to dispatch a typical striker’s finish. A stunning second followed, with a first touch that took her away from goal under pressure, and as the ball kicked up into the air, she sent a left-footer crashing down beautifully off the angle of post and bar. Sensational from a player who was just 15 when she made her debut in Norwegian club football (for Stabæk in the Toppserien).

The former Lyn youth player won her first international cap in November 2011 as a 16-year-old and is now already in the top ten goalscorers for the national team. An extra special moment arrived as she netted in her ‘own back yard’ against Belgium in a World Cup qualifier in September 2013, at the Ullevaal Stadion, just like she used to imagine growing up. As it also happens, Green Day have played at the venue in the past.

For all the criticism, setbacks and sacrifice as a footballer, the possibility of living out such dream sequences in reality is the part that can never be compromised. If anything really was possible from a concert-viewing perspective for Caro, which means seeing any band or artist, in any era, who would she fly in specially?

“Oh, that’s a hard one. I really want to see Imagine Dragons live; they have a fantastic live show so I really want to see them.

“From all-time, it would be crazy cool to see Michael Jackson at his best. I’ve been to some different ones; I also like classical music, so right after Christmas I watched Andrea Bocelli.

“I also saw Justin Timberlake not so long ago and that was an amazing show. When I have some time, I always love to watch and listen to music live.”

Caroline Graham Hansen (right) celebrates with Wolfsburg teammate Pernille Harder. Photo: VfL Wolfsburg / RS24/Sebastian Priebe

At Wolfsburg, German schlager songs helped light up their celebratory trip to Mallorca last season; like the sparkler in a cocktail, but with even more novelty. Die Wölfinnen’s Swiss internationals Lara Dickenmann and Noëlle Maritz, meanwhile, are just a couple of the players who have had the changing-room playlist at their fingertips in recent seasons.

Just as some teams might favour leadership groups instead of one set captain, there is shared input in the Norwegian side’s sounds before a game, Caro says.

“In the national team, we always have a list where every player can choose songs, so there’s no real DJ; everybody can have their favourite pick. It’s more like we have these songs that always have to be played before a game, and through the different clubs I’ve been playing at, I feel like it’s always been different people who contribute with their music from time to time.

“The diversity is what speaks to me, in a way.”

Across those different nationalities Caro is around at Wolfsburg are women with elite ability on the field, but crucial strength of character to speak up and stand for something off it. In her 2013 spell at Tyresö, they were also there in abundance, with Vero Boquete, Marta, Caroline Seger, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris just some of the noteworthy personalities at the club at the time.

The company you keep undoubtedly impacts upon you, as does tackling homesickness and bidding to find your way in a new culture, with the soundtrack of an unfamiliar language to add in on top. It all contributes to further uncovering that picture of who you are, which is not lost on Caro.

The songs a player chooses to hear when kick-off is closing in may seem inconsequential to some, though many know the significance it carries for a great number who play the game around the world. In that sense, Caro likes to add some contrast on occasions.

“It depends on the game and my mood, but in general, I like to get hyped up and have some upbeat music. Then maybe right before the game, I could have some calm music to just focus and get a good feeling.”

Asked for any specific examples to share, she went to her phone to pull out a couple.

“I always come in to ‘Hall of Fame’ from The Script (featuring will.i.am) and ‘Broken Arrows’ from Avicii. Those are two examples, but I have a lot there.”

It was announced in May 2014 that Caro would be joining Wolfsburg, though she is glad to say she has still not had to sing when joining a team. That switch to Lower Saxony was confirmed around the same time that her current Green-Whites colleague Ella Masar featured on here, fresh from scoring the first goal in Houston Dash history (‘twas a crisp April evening at Harvard Stadium…).

In that interview, the versatile and vastly experienced American said: A couple girls on our team play the drums, so we might get a Houston Dash band going. That’s on-record, so you better watch out; you’re like the first to know about us!”

She was also talking in that interview about the acoustic performances she had put together with Canada keeper and Dash teammate at the time, the supremely-vocalled Erin McLeod (whom she married in 2015), for their Ella and Erin Show on YouTube. The two released the song ‘Fly Away’ in 2017 in memory of Masar’s former University of Illinois captain Laura Ramirez, with proceeds going towards an athletic scholarship at the university.

Masar has brought an added ingredient all-round to Wolfsburg since she joined a year ago (a different Ella-ment, if you will…), and Caro very quickly suggested her when asked here for a teammate from her career she would collaborate with if she ever had to record a song cover.

“I don’t know what kind of artist or song but I would pick Ella Masar. She’s the one I’ve met so far who can sing, and I can’t!

“I would just leave it up to her and make her sing something that she would like and I would just be in the background.”

Twice a league champion with Stabæk in Norway and with three domestic cups, Caro has won a pair of Frauen-Bundesliga titles and the DFB-Pokal four times since arriving in Germany. Wolfsburg’s irresistible firepower has them top of the league at present, level with Bayern on points but 14 goals better off, while they host Turbine Potsdam in the DFB-Pokal quarter-final in a fortnight.

Photo: VfL Wolfsburg / RS24/Sebastian Priebe

Familiar adversaries Lyon will later follow in the last eight of the Champions League, in yet another crunch clash with the French champions. It is a repeat of the 2013, 2016 and 2018 finals, as well as the 2017 quarter-final, with Wolfsburg triumphing in the first of those, at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.

The two clubs have played each other so often that maybe it is time to change it up a little…with a rap battle instead to decide who progresses. Which player would Caro give the mic to first, assuming she did not want to step up herself, that is?

“Oh…I don’t even know if people can rap. I know who I would give it to – Mary Earps.”

While we wait and see if UEFA take that suggestion on board for any future meetings between the two clubs, it is of course necessary not to understate how meaningful those prior games have been in the Wolfsburg players’ individual and collective paths. For Caro, missing the 2016 final through injury hit her particularly hard.

She previously stated that missing the last World Cup was important for the long-term health of her knee, while there was a different knee injury after she had come back from that, along with a hairline fracture in her leg later down the line. Caro believes she has shed a degree of anxiousness from having to deal with those extended times out of action.

Asked what she has learned from football up to now, as well as how she might differ today from that teenager in Euro 2013 and the one who joined Wolfsburg, her comeback voyages inevitably factored hugely into her response.

“I’ve learned to have this kind of discipline that you probably only get when you’re injured. You really want to play again and you learn that you just need to keep your head down.

“Not that you didn’t work before, but you get this other kind of discipline; like doing small exercises to keep injury-free, just to be the best player you can be. So I learned a lot there, because you think ‘I don’t wanna be injured again, I wanna keep healthy.’

“Obviously, you can’t control all injuries, but you can control many. So I’ve learned that, and on that way you also learn a lot about yourself and what you want to do when you go through times when things are hard.

“I want to play football; that’s what I really want to do. Then you have to embrace the time you have and enjoy playing football, and not get too caught up in being nervous before a game, or taking it too hard when it doesn’t go your way.

“There’s always a new game or training, and I think through all the times when you haven’t been able to play, you learn to appreciate and have a different perspective of life and what a football life can offer you.”

Appearing in the Champions League last 16 for Tyresö in 2013/14 – they would go on to make the final – Caro returned home to Stabæk in January 2014, before her Wolfsburg move a few months later. The uncertainty surrounding Tyresö, who folded that same year, was a factor in her opting to move on, but she also wanted to finish her studies.

Caro got her high school diploma, which she felt was crucial so she could study what she wanted in the future. She has just recently had an exam to take, though even when she is not preoccupied academically, the time to get her thoughts out onto paper or screen, or to absorb the work of others, is treasured.

“Right now, it’s just a year of studying medicine, just to see if I like it; so far I am enjoying it. I’m just doing it to keep my mind occupied, something else besides football, and to figure out what I want to do.

“I really love to write, when I have time or when I travel. I like to write down different things; anything from poems to my thoughts on different stuff.

“Then I also like to read, so I read a lot of books.”

Despite her other passions, football has always been there with Caro, supported by her father who would take her places and invest the hours with her on the training pitch. Like Liverpool, Manchester United of course have a worldwide following, but very strongly in Scandinavia, and Caro counts herself among them.

She can, however, point to a closer link, as she explains where the Graham part of her name originates from.

“My great granddad came from England to work in Norway as a train driver.”

She adds that she ‘should know’ which part of England he came from – “I think it’s the north part, or Scotland.” A partly-British heritage, then, though she is Oslo born and raised.

The Norwegian national team has been coached by Martin Sjögren for just over two years, with the Swede arriving after leading Linköping to the 2016 Damallsvenskan title. Having excelled as one of Euro 2013’s breakthrough talents, Caro played every minute of Norway’s 2017 campaign, though they exited the group without a point or goal, leaving her crestfallen and tearful.

Earlier in 2017, she had spoken of the 2019 World Cup and qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since 2008 as the biggest priorities. Sjögren’s side qualified automatically for France 2019, topping a group containing Euro holders the Netherlands, with Caro scoring six along the way.

Their World Cup starts for real against Nigeria in Reims on 8th June, and the hosts and Korea Republic complete their group. The focus is for the foreseeable future with Wolfsburg for Caro, and despite recent speculation linking her with a move away at the end of this season, she says nothing is decided.

“Right now, I feel like it’s pretty much just open. For me, I’m focused just on playing here.

“I love to play here, and what the future will show, will come soon enough. I’m just enjoying football right here and the situation is just rumours put out there by other people; I have not contributed to them.

“If it was up to me, none of what’s out there would be out there, so I can’t control those forces, other than to say I’m happy where I am right now and just enjoying football.”

 

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We are out! Pure love for these three ❤️#takkfornå 🏆

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Tactical preparation and team responsibilities granted, Caro also plays with that air of freedom from constraints of an exact formula. Sometimes it is so much better left to a split-second, in-the-moment instinct – life in its very essence perhaps. As a former teammate will articulate in an upcoming interview on here, Norway has not produced many players quite like her before.

There are a number of close observers of the women’s game who feel Caro deserves to be spoken about more frequently amongst the very best attacking performers in the world. Admittedly, ‘do you agree with that?’ would not be a very fair question to ask, but alongside wanting to win and help those around her, does she feel any added desire to push on and be spoken about in such conversations?

“I am not the one to talk about my performances. I’m doing the best I can do to help my team, and if people think that’s as good as you describe it, then of course that’s nice to hear, but I’m not going to put my name out there in any other way than letting my feet do the talking.

“If that makes people want to talk highly of me, then I say thank you and I really appreciate that. I’m going to make sure I’m playing football; I’m not going to ask people to talk about me highly just because I think that they should.

“That’s not how it works and that’s not how I want it to be. I’m going to keep playing football and I’m going to keep improving and doing what I can so my team keeps winning football matches.

“What comes after that, it’s not for me to decide. It’s nice to hear good stuff about you, but I’m not going to put my name out there in any other way than just playing football.”

Maybe she knows the very route she will go for in the future; maybe it will all transpire just as soon as the feeling can take her there. Maybe she longs for a new jet of colour on the canvas; maybe she already has the ideal artist’s impression of home.

A 24-year-old who yearns to see what is behind the next door, or one who sees an ocean of possibility right where she is. Like that old album safely stored in the collection, the pitch will be there waiting regardless, and that is where she is required in one final question here.

It is not quite a party unless she brings some friends, and so the scene is an imaginary small-sided game, with Caro to choose four current or former teammates she would want to play alongside against an opposition team. She does, however, seem to have snuck two more in through the gate, so a couple are about to be benched in this line-up!

This regular closing question is not a definitive choice of ‘best’ teammates, but just some examples of the numerous players to have impacted upon the interviewee. Similar to the song mix in the team changing rooms she so enjoys, it is a multi-national affair for Caro here.

“I’ve played with some very, very good male players on my way, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to choose those as well? One is my best friend – his name is Mats (Møller) Dæhli.

“He’s a real baller; what he does with the ball is just amazing, so I would pick him. He was the Young Player of the Year at Man United, before Adnan Januzaj.

“He’s had some injuries but he’s doing really well in Germany (at St. Pauli), so I would bring him. Then I would have…oh this is so hard.

“I would have Lene Mykjåland. She doesn’t play now but she was a real baller; she had an amazing touch, technique – wow.

“I would pick Marta. Her touch on the ball and just her easiness when she plays; it would be a joy to have on your 5-a-side team.

“I would have a holding midfielder I played with in Stabæk – Katrine Pedersen. Her composure and reading the game – who wouldn’t want that? She would just win the ball and pass it on.

“I would also have Pernille Harder on my team; another real baller. I need a goalie…I would put Almuth Schult.

“She’s really good with her feet, so then you know you would have it secure.”

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