Pernille Harder: ‘I was the only girl in the team but they wanted to play with me’

The Denmark and Wolfsburg striker, widely regarded as one of the best three female players in the world, has stood out from a young age and Champions League success is her next target

“I started playing when I was five or six years old. I played with boys until I was 11 because there was no girls’ team. It has always been accepted where I come from. Even though I was the only girl in the guys’ team, they wanted to play with me.”

It is not surprising the boys wanted to play alongside Pernille Harder. The Danish striker’s prolific goalscoring and clever play have lit up every league she has played in and she is widely regarded as one of the best three female players in the world. At the Frauen-Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg, whom she joined from Swedish side Linköpings at the start of 2017, Harder is the league’s top scorer with 11 goals in 11 games – five ahead of her nearest rivals.

It would have been easy for Harder to settle in Sweden. She scored 70 goals in 87 appearances for Linköpings, twice winning the Swedish cup and winning the league in 2016 as top scorer with 24 goals in 22 games.

Yet the lure of the Bundesliga was strong. “I always wanted to go to Germany one day,” the 25-year-old says. “I guess it’s because the German league is the strongest league in Europe and possibly the world. All the games are hard. We’re one of the best teams in the world right now, with a lot of good players, and that’s why I always wanted to come here.

“It’s a little more physical, all teams are fit and physically strong. The way teams defend in the Bundesliga compared to Swedish league is very different. In Sweden we’re standing in zones and defending the space behind us. In Germany it’s go forward and go 100%. It’s very different for me when I have the ball and it’s given me a new way of thinking and has developed my game.”

Leaving Scandinavia was more complicated for Harder because it also meant leaving behind her partner, the Swedish defender and team-mate Magdalena Eriksson. “We played in the same team and we lived together. Of course it’s hard but we know this is just a little part of the time we have together,” she says. “We both know we want to go our own way in our careers and do what’s best for us as individuals. So it has to be like this right now.”

With both playing at the top level, Harder at Wolfsburg and Eriksson at Chelsea, striking a balance can be tough. They could face each other on the pitch for the first time in the Champions League semi-finals if both sides win their quarter-finals.

In her first season in Germany Wolfsburg pipped the holders, Bayern Munich, to the Bundesliga crown as the team secured the league and cup double. However, with the men’s team finishing in the relegation play-off spot, the celebration of the women’s double was controversially postponed and the city did not mark the success until the 2017-18 season had begun – and the men had secured Bundesliga survival. “Of course it was a little weird that we should wait until after the Euros to get celebrated,” she says cautiously. “I feel like it would have been most normal to celebrate directly after [the season ended] but because of those reasons for the men’s team we couldn’t. But when we did, it was a really good celebration from the city.”

Pernille Harder, No 22, celebrates after scoring for Wolfsburg against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League this season.
Pernille Harder, No 22, celebrates after scoring for Wolfsburg against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League this season. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/Uefa via Getty Images

This season, with her team two points clear of second-placed Freiburg at the midway point, Harder is targeting the treble and, in particular, the elusive Champions League trophy. “That’s what I haven’t won yet so that would be a big thing to achieve.”

Last summer Harder captained Denmark to the European Championship final against the Netherlands. Playing slightly deeper than usual, she shone. After Denmark’s dream start in the final – going 1-0 up inside six minutes – they found themselves 2-1 down with less than half an hour gone. Then Harder showed why she is one of the best in the world. Running from the halfway line to pick up the ball and springing the offside trap, she cut inside and powered a wonderful shot past Sari van Veenendaal to level before the interval.

“I hoped it would be that we turned the game but unfortunately it wasn’t enough,” she says of her individual moment of magic, which was followed by two second-half Netherlands goals to put the trophy in the hands of the host nation.

“It was hard right after because you’re so close to winning and then you don’t. But afterwards, when you’ve had a bit of distance, you realise what you achieved just by getting to the final.

“I was really proud of the team. We made a big thing for Denmark and after we really felt how much the Danish population was cheering us on. Now they know who the Danish national women’s team are and not many knew that before the Euros.”

Harder won huge praise for her performances at the tournament, which were perhaps overshadowed a little by those of the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens.

While the build-up to Fifa’s The Best awards was naturally dominated by Messi and Ronaldo, a different discussion was taking place around the women’s prize. Although Martens rightfully picked up the trophy, controversy surrounded a shortlist which failed to include Harder, the Australia striker Sam Kerr or Lyon’s Dzsenifer Marozsán.

In Uefa’s player of the year award Harder finished, more appropriately, as runner-up to Martens. Some less official lists have put Harder on top of the pile and it is welcome recognition. “Of course I have goals for my personal career,” she says. “I want to be the best in the world but the most important thing is to win titles with the team. If I don’t win titles with the teams I play in, I won’t get individual recognition.”

Harder had a stellar 2017 and made a flying start to 2018 but is reluctant to look too far ahead: “As of right now my future is at Wolfsburg until summer 2020. After that I don’t know yet. Of course I want to try other things. I’m only 25 so I have a lot of other stuff in front of me.”

Talking points

Abi McManus scores Manchester City’s final goal in the 4-0 win over Liverpool which took them back to the top of WSL1.
Abi McManus scores Manchester City’s final goal in the 4-0 win over Liverpool which took them back to the top of WSL1. Photograph: Tom Flathers/Man City via Getty Images

• The Football Association has announced that entry for kids will be free for the Women’s FA Cup final which takes place at 5.30pm on Saturday 5 May at Wembley. The match will be broadcast live on BBC One.

• Manchester City regained top spot in WSL1 – from Chelsea, who beat Birmingham 2-0 away – with an emphatic 4-0 win over Liverpool. Arsenal leapfrogged Liverpool into third place with the same scoreline against Yeovil.

• The forward Eugénie le Sommer became Lyon’s all-time leading scorer on 226 goals in their 11-0 cup win over Toulouse.

• Sydney will take on Melbourne City in Sunday’s W-League Grand Final after Wales’ Jess Fishlock and the former Notts County player Aivi Luik scored in City’s win over Brisbane Roar.