‘She's taken Messi's place on the Pepsi bottles!’ - How Barcelona's Caroline Graham Hansen became the best winger in the world

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When Caroline Graham Hansen told Tresor Egholm, one of her first coaches and a close friend, that she was thinking of joining Barcelona, his response was: 'Why?'

Graham Hansen reached two Champions League finals with Wolfsburg while winning seven domestic trophies in five seasons.

The German giants were undoubtedly one of the best teams in the world, seen by seven-time European champions Lyon as their rival.

‘Yes, but Barcelona are telling me they're trying to become the best team in the world,’ she replied. ‘I really believe in this.’

Egholm questioned the strength of the Spanish league, but Graham Hansen again had faith in growth. ‘I think they are building it,’ she said.

Fast forward three years – with Barcelona the holders of the Champions League trophy and the chance to retain it coming on Saturday in the final against Lyon – and Egholm laughs.

“She was right and I was wrong!” he tells GOAL. “And I'm really glad.”

UWCL final stream links 👇

English - https://bit.ly/BarcelonaLyonEN

Spanish - https://bit.ly/BarcelonaLyonES

French - https://bit.ly/BarcelonaLyonFR

It’s certainly not the first time Graham Hansen, arguably the best winger in the world, has proved someone wrong over the years. It’s unlikely to be the last, either.

Graham Hansen was born in Oslo, Norway, and played football for one of the city’s top clubs, Lyn.

It didn’t have any girls’ teams when she started so she played for the boys alongside Mats Moller Daehli, the Norway international midfielder who is still one of her friends to this day.

“I had heard that Mats was really, really good. They told me that there was a good girl there as well - but she probably wouldn’t make it with the boys when she gets older,” Egholm chuckles, recalling a memory now 17 years old.

“I started working with them in the academy one or two times a week and she was outstanding. She was just the same level as Mats, both of them were really, really good players.

“All the hints and tips we tried to teach her, she would pick it up so quickly. You could just give her more and more and more, and she would just pick up everything really fast. She had a really good understanding of the game.”

Graham Hansen was so good she'd even play with the older boys' team – "almost unheard of" for a girl. But she would have to move on to a women’s team eventually.

That team would be Stabaek, the Oslo-based club with the best women's side in Norway, a club she wowed first hand in a rare appearance for Lyn's under-16 girls a few months earlier.

In late 2009, the team had reached their cup final, a game that would be hosted by Stabaek. Richard Jansen was the speaker at the club's games and he was happy to occupy that role here, too. It was another job that he wasn’t so keen on, though – picking player of the match.

Fortunately, it would be one of the easiest jobs he will probably ever have.

“Because Lyn had Caroline,” he laughs. “She won the match for Lyn on her own, even though Lyn had a good team. She was outstanding. She was better than all the other players.”

After joining as a 15-year-old, Graham Hansen's time with Stabaek simply confirmed what everyone had heard about her.

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“I think she started on the bench for the two or three first matches, and then she played everything if she was not injured,” Jansen remembers.

“We saw [her talent] right away. She just needed a couple of years in the gym to get some more muscles and then she would be world-class.”

It was being seen outside of Norway, too. She was called up to the senior national team aged 16 and had her breakthrough major tournament just two years later, making five starts as her country reached the final of Euro 2013.

Solveig Gulbrandsen played alongside the teenager that summer and was certainly one of those believing the hype.

“I didn't know so much about her because she had played with boys for a long time and then suddenly, someone was talking about how there was a 15-year-old girl who was really, really good,” she remembers.

“The first time I saw her, I was really thinking, 'I'm getting old!' The new players coming through are getting so technical.

"She had so many skills. Her technique is outstanding. She can do a lot of stuff with a ball that I can't do.”

That ability was spotted by one of the most ambitious women’s football projects in the world.

Swedish side Tyreso had the game’s greatest ever player, Marta; four U.S. women’s national team stars, including Christen Press; and two of the most talented players Spain has produced, in Vero Boquete and Jenni Hermoso. Now, they wanted Graham Hansen.

“Before she arrived, they were telling us, ‘This Norwegian player, she’s really young, but we really believe that she is a fantastic player. She’s going to be one of the best’,” Boquete says.

“She always wanted the ball and she would go against you. She was never afraid. I remember that already some players were like, ‘Wow, this player is so young and she wants to dribble at me!’

“When you see a player that young with no fear, wanting to show that she is already good, that means that she has already has character and ambition.”

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It was Graham Hansen’s second move abroad that really thrust her name into the conversation as one of the best wingers in the world, though.

Forming wonderful on-pitch relationships with Pernille Harder and Ewa Pajor, her time with Wolfsburg saw her develop as a player, win trophies and gain tons of experience. Her game became more refined, too.

“She is one of the rare ones – you can’t teach what she has,” Ella Masar, who played with the Norway international in Germany, explains.

“I think at Wolfsburg, obviously you knew she had something special. You got to train with her every day. She showed up and did things I haven’t seen a women’s player do, minus probably Marta.

“People don’t understand that she left home so young, that when she came into Wolfsburg in 2015, she was a kid. To go into that environment [at 19 years old] and thrive there for five years, that speaks to who she is.

"I had a hard time doing that for a year and a half and I was 30, 31. The sacrifices she’s made, no one will ever understand.”

Those difficult times have also shaped her into who she is today. Graham Hansen's struggles with injuries in Germany were so much that she almost walked away from the game four years ago.

Fortunately, she wouldn’t. Egholm recalls her returning to Norway at one point for some rehab and Moller Daehli being injured at the same time, which was “really good for her – but unlucky for Mats, of course,” he laughs.

“One of your best friends training together with you and going through the same thing... I think that was really important for her.”

“My family supported me, kept me calm and just said, 'Hey, take it easy. We will come back. Don't think so far ahead',” Graham Hansen told GOAL last summer of that time.

“You kind of get a little bit scared that it can ruin the career [of a player],” Gulbrandsen, watching her former team-mate from afar at this point, adds.

“I'm really, really happy that she made it through the injury time and is now doing so well.”

It’s a sentiment shared by several people GOAL speaks to – and by fans of the game as a whole. That’s because this is an incredibly special player.

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It’s just a few days before Saturday’s Champions League final and a smile flashes across the face of Jonatan Giraldez, the Barcelona head coach, as he recalls one of the first times he watched Graham Hansen play after talks between her and the club had started.

“It was unbelievable, the performance, the difference between her and the rest of the players,” he tells GOAL.

“Two months later, I remember when she came to the club, we were talking about that game. She told me that her performance wasn’t amazing. For me, it was unbelievable!

“Her first day, I remember one player told me, 'She is an amazing player'. We were only five minutes in! And doing a very easy exercise.

"But when the rhythm of the pass, the precision of the pass and the movement before and the timing is so good, when you are coming from another country… It is not so easy for the foreign players. And Caro had it.”

Since then, she's won nine trophies in three years and the style of Barcelona and of Spain has added another element to her game.

“In the beginning, in Tyreso, maybe she was more individual,” Boquete, who played against Graham Hansen in Germany as well, says.

“Now, she is a more complete player, more of a team player. She is one of the best in the world and any midfielder in the world would love to play with her, because you know that in the moment that you give her the ball, something great can happen.”

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She’s also really found her voice off the pitch – standing up for what she feels is right – and her position as a recognisable figure and a role model, particularly back in Norway, continues to grow.

“She has even moved Messi away from the Pepsi bottles,” Jansen laughs. “They’ve taken away Messi and put Caroline on there instead.”

“It's giving me goosebumps actually because I would never have thought that could happen at all,” Gulbrandsen adds.

“When you grow up and you only have male role models playing soccer and now she's at the front with Pepsi… That's kind of big!”

Perhaps the only thing missing is individual recognition. Graham Hansen was easily one of the best players in the world last season but was not included on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.

“Excuse me, but that’s a f*cking joke,” Masar says, justifiably. “I think you have to appreciate football and we're still in this world where it's starting to slowly change and Barca is starting to get on this platform.

“What she does, her and Marta [Torrejon] on that right hand side, I think that's one of the best right sides if not in the game right now. And they've proved it now for three years straight.”

For a player like Graham Hansen, though, an assist-machine whose focus is on delivering for the team rather than personal glory, while it might be frustrating at times, that won’t bother her too much – certainly not while she is winning title after title in such style.

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What the panellists for these awards are waiting for is unclear, but her team-mates know her worth – as do so many more and as should Lyon, going into this weekend’s final.

“She's one of the best players in the world,” Barcelona defender Irene Paredes said this week. “We are lucky to have her in our team. She always makes the difference and I hope she will this Saturday, also.”

You wouldn’t bet against it.