In years to come, Pernille Harder’s 20s will be linked to a terrifically torrential downpour of team trophies, with individual acclaim that has landed just as emphatically for Denmark’s captain. As the VfL Wolfsburg forward’s star has risen, a worthy voice has been elevated with it. With such a platform, it seems right to remember to listen to one’s heart – after all, there’s nothing else you can do…
Crowned UEFA Women’s Player of the Year last August, it was a gold-dusted feat for Pernille Harder on a wave of success that has yet to relent. That momentum had begun to surge to new levels as she captained the Denmark side that confounded expectations to reach the final of UEFA Women’s Euro 2017.
At that time, their talismanic number ten had already won the first of three (so far) consecutive domestic doubles with VfL Wolfsburg, having shot Linköping to the Damallsvenskan title a few months earlier. With her elevation to the elite individual bracket has come much broader familiarity, and so too the intrigue into a confident yet unassuming character.
Between the lines of who she is, there is something that weaves seamlessly, day after day.
“Yeah, I mean I love music,” the four-time consecutive Danish Football Player of the Year explained. “Whenever I’m home, I put on music; different music for the mood that I’m in.”
“Of course, I listen to something before the games, but it can actually be really different, depending on what mood I’m in; if I want to listen to some techno for some high tempo, or if I just want to listen to some 60s to be happy and to get in a good mood. I can also just listen to what’s new on the charts.
“I listen to a lot of different things, but of course music has a big part of my life.”
Her world reputation may be more recent, but the 27-year-old is not at all new to the party. A senior international for a decade now, Pernille led the line for her country as a 21-year-old in Euro 2013 as Denmark reached the last four.
Achievements like breezing beyond a century of caps are the realisation of what was once dream material for her in the Midtjylland town of Ikast. Parents Annie and Mogens (both with a footballing past) are a pillar of who she has become, and as well as values and appearance, she carries other, less instantly visible reminders of them with her.
Like, for example, something you can throw on whenever the moment should call for it.
“I actually like listening to older music a lot; 80s and sometimes even 60s. When I was growing up, I always listened to what my parents were listening to, like Roxette.
“I really like Roxette, and then they also listened to Rocazino, it’s a Danish band, and (fellow Danish act) Michael Learns to Rock.”
It was extremely poignant that during this interview, the news that Roxette lead singer Marie Fredriksson had passed away at 61 became public knowledge. Pernille picks out the up-tempo ballad ‘Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)’ as her most-loved song from the band’s back catalogue.
A reason why we feel an extra tinge of sadness for certain artists and performers when they die is because, at some point, they were responsible for bringing an extra ray of enjoyment and belonging to our lives through their work. Perhaps there is nothing quite like music for attaching itself to moments.
The shots and footage of Marie Fredriksson on stage, at her performing peak alongside Per Gessle and commanding the attention of thousands in the crowd, will endure. The same is true of the little corner the band take up in Pernille’s childhood, and in her memories so far with her girlfriend, Chelsea and Sweden defender (and one-time Linköping teammate) Magdalena Eriksson.
They were together in the audience in summer 2015, at one show on the band’s mammoth ‘Neverending World Tour’. So, which of Pernille and Magda had the idea to go?
“That was my idea,” Pernille confirms. “These were the last dates before (Fredriksson) stopped playing, because she was not well, and I really wanted to go, so we got tickets to one of the last concerts, in Kalmar in Sweden.”
“It was really good, and it was cool to experience, because like I said, I had grown up listening to Roxette’s music.”
Together with some of the more seasoned choices, as a 90s kid, the Frauen-Bundesliga’s current 18-goal top scorer was very much a child of her time.
“The first album I bought, it could have been Backstreet Boys or Westlife; one of the boybands!”
A revival of those teen-pop glory days courtesy of VfL Wolfsburg Frauen would be something truly international (“Think of the marketing potential!” a music exec in the distance shouts…). That was indeed the direction Pernille took it in when asked which teammate(s) from her career so far she would get on board if she ever recorded a song.
“I think I would make a band with Sara Gunnarsdóttir, Caro (Graham) Hansen, Mary Earps, Babett Peter and Ella Masar. They are some girls that I got to know at Wolfsburg, and we have a tight connection, so I think we would make a good band – I think we would be the new Spice Girls!”
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A hypothetical scenario that may be, but the crossover is not all that fanciful. In fact, Pernille’s Denmark team got to experience it first-hand for Euro 2017.
Cutting in from the right to plant a left-footed equaliser against the Netherlands in the final, Pernille was named in the Team of the Tournament, alongside compatriot Theresa Nielsen. The competition provided oodles of Danish delight, with the quarter-final triumph in Rotterdam that ended Germany’s 22-year hold on the trophy a real moment for many to sit up and take notice.
Nils Nielsen’s team were a summer hit on the continent, and they had arrived with their own track in their honour, by British-Danish singer/comedienne Molly Thornhill. The video featured the team, a ‘Kom så Danmark!’ hook, pop culture references aplenty, and a giant Nadia Nadim cut-out – what more could you ever need?
Pernille recalls its place on their red-and-white run to the final in the Netherlands.
“We were listening a lot to this song that was made for us, for the Euros, called ‘Røde Strømper’ – ‘Red Socks’ in English! We also listened a lot to Nik & Jay.
“For me, I listened a lot to ‘You Never Can Tell,’ Chuck Berry, so that reminds me a lot of the Euros. I would listen to that before the game; it just made me calm and in a good mood.
“That’s one of my favourite songs from the 60s.”
That 2017 tournament was cascading with so much of what is good about Europe, with 16 nations competing for the ultimate, gleaming prize, but each culture there to give something to the celebration and atmosphere along the way. Austria’s suitcase/speaker-fuelled conga through the post-match mixed zone, to Iceland’s ‘Víkinga klappið’ encore, to the overarching and irrepressible Oranje soundtrack from the hosts. It was a three-week WoSo gathering filled with sound and spirit.
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In Wolfsburg’s own Euro dream team, it is Swiss international Noëlle Maritz who rules the music kingdom on a match day. Domestic success with the Lower Saxony side has flowed continuously in Pernille’s time there, and when it comes to track choices for those celebratory moments for a German team, schlager never seems too far away.
Does this jovial genre get a regular airing in the current Wolfsburg changing room? More importantly, who is the most willing mover in the team when the beat heats up?!
Pernille, who says her music is ‘a little bit different to what they want to hear in the locker room,’ reveals.
“Not so much schlager before the games – sometimes after, when the Germans want to celebrate a lot! Mostly it’s what’s new; pop, r&b.
“I think the one who likes to dance most is Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir!”
The consistent demands of being a performer on the field can mean those opportunities to loosen up are especially treasured. When Linköping won the Damallsvenskan title by ten points in 2016, Pernille was part of a 44-goal strike force with Sweden forward Stina Blackstenius, who notched 20.
A two-time Svenska Cupen winner, Pernille would become the first Wolfsburg player to finish top scorer in the Frauen-Bundesliga, when she struck 17 goals two seasons ago. It is a tally she has already surpassed this season.
If we were to take the intensity down and let her enjoy seeing another master at work – more specifically, any singer or band from all-time – who would be her number-one choice?
“I think I would want to see Queen; I also really like their music. Really good rhythm in it and I would love to be at the show they did at Live Aid.
“I’ve also been to Justin Timberlake. I also like his music; it’s with a lot of good rhythm and you can dance to it, so that was a really good concert.”
A year before she won it, Pernille was in Monaco as she was named runner-up for the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year award, though she laughs that she has never had to step up to the initiation ‘stage’ when she has joined a new team. She did, however, capture Magda in full flow, singing in the car, which she duly shared on Instagram.
“It’s a Swedish song (Magda was singing) – (Håkan Hellström) ‘Du Fria’. Magda likes music a lot, and I also like it.
“We like to listen to music together and also go to concerts when we have the opportunity, that’s for sure.”
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A relationship is first and foremost for those involved, and something nobody outside of it should have entitlement or control over. One thing their status as a couple could never do is detract from the world-class players each of them are in their own right, though Pernille and Magda have realised that there is far-reaching, potential impact in what they have. As some great Swedish prophets told in their ‘Listen To Your Heart’ teachings – ‘and there are voices that want to be heard…’
Pernille and Magda pledged 1 percent of their annual salaries to Play Proud, a Common Goal initiative aiming to work with coaches and mentors to establish safe sporting environments for LGBTQ+ youth. For Pernille, much has come with being considered among her game’s elite, from greatly increased commercial commitments, to masses more media outlets and individuals wanting to talk to her.
She has adopted an analytical view as a TV3 Sport pundit back home, while she and her teammates notably stepped forward to call for better standards of federation support for the national team. It was painful to put themselves through – the September 2017 friendly against the Netherlands was cancelled, while the following month’s World Cup qualifier was awarded as a Sweden win – but meaningful change and meek surrender do not often go hand in hand.
It is typical for the former IK Skovbakken player to converse in four languages on any given day, while so many extra commitments to add to the pressures of staying at the highest levels of performance (and trying to have a private life) could easily have taken its toll. She has been keen, though, to run with it.
“Yeah, of course there’s been a lot more focus on me, more media stuff to do, and I have got a bigger platform where I have a voice now. I recognise that I can go out and say what I think about some topics, and also make a debate out of it.
“I think that is something I have been taking with me, so I have started to do that more, because there are some topics in society that I would like to make a debate about, like equality and homosexuality. That’s something I have learned over these last years, that my platform is getting bigger, and I have a bigger voice.”
In the times she takes to enjoy being a ‘regular person,’ supporting Manchester United plays a part. She made sure she was watching the men’s team’s Manchester derby win after Wolfsburg arrived at their hotel ahead of the recent SC Sand game in the Frauen-Bundesliga.
FC Midtjylland were the team she was taken to see as a kid, while as she has spoken about before, Man United were passed on to her and sister Louise by her father – but where did his connection to them come from? Peter Schmeichel was in the early days of his United career when Pernille was born, and the previous decade had seen John Sivebæk and (most notably) Jesper Olsen flying the flag.
Does Pernille know if the family connection started with those players, or if it was even deeper rooted?
“Yeah, I actually don’t know, it was just since we were born that we were supporting Manchester United in the family. I can imagine it was because of the Danish players, but it has always been Manchester United in the house.”
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Her game is not built on being a poacher, and she has even been deployed in a midfield role, but Pernille’s scoring record at international level is better than one in two (59 goals in 115 games). She is jointly leading the way with five goals in Denmark’s Euro 2021 qualifying group, with Lars Søndergaard’s side winning their first five games, though they still have to play leaders Italy twice in what will be pivotal encounters.
Of course, Pernille will be looked to as a central figure, but there are key players in the ranks who are long since established, and the likes of Sofie Svava who are emerging. The 19-year-old made a strong impact down the left against England in their May friendly in Walsall this year (Pernille and Sanne Troelsgaard both highlighting her after the game). The FC Rosengård player has also been stepping forward with the team’s music.
Stephan Lerch’s Wolfsburg are top of the Bundesliga tree at Christmas, three points clear of 1899 Hoffenheim. Glasgow City await in the Champions League quarter-final in March, and though a fourth consecutive domestic double would be magnificent, European glory for the first time since 2014 is the one the She-Wolves would dearly love. It was Pernille who put them in front in extra-time of the 2018 final in Kiev, before that four-goal Lyon avalanche – maybe May in Vienna will see her finally clasp her hands around the trophy.
When training, games and other duties (or music/football interviews…) are set aside briefly, she has been known to enjoy a game of golf in her spare time. Pernille shares a little more of what fills the world of this Danish rock star.
“I like to hang out with my friends. When I’m in off-season, I love to travel, to see different cultures and eat a lot of good food.
“I just watch a lot on Netflix. (Any favourite TV programmes?) Beverly Hills, 90210 is one of my all-time favourites; I watched it always when I was a young girl, when I came home from school, together with my dad and sister.”
It is easy to forget that, like so many of her contemporaries, her life from teenager to adult has happened while being an international (and ultimately, elite-level professional) footballer. At 16, she scored a hat-trick on her Denmark debut in a 15-0 win over Georgia.
Between goals, assists, frustrations, making international headlines, and friendships that seem sure to stand the test of time, what has she learned, as we pause at 27?
“For sure I have learned a lot from football. Working together with a lot of different people and also being really open-minded, because there are a lot of different cultures gathered in a football team that you get to know about.
“I think there’s a lot of things that you can learn from football, and of course I’ve become a better person.”
The story continues, but in time-honoured (or something less pretentious…) Beats & Rhymes FC fashion, there is one more scene here, and it’s shot on imaginary location in the 5-a-side arena. So, if Pernille hadn’t had enough football yet for the day, and she was about to play a small-sided game somewhere, who are four examples of current or former teammates she would enjoy having in her line-up?
“Yeah, if it’s the ones I would have the most fun with, it would be the girls I told you about before (Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Caroline Graham Hansen, Mary Earps, Babett Peter and Ella Masar); I can’t choose just three of them. Then of course also Magda.
“I think those are the ones I would prefer to play with.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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