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Chelsea's trailblazing champion: The Pernille Harder story

Pernille Harder does not remember exactly what Zlatan Ibrahimovic said to her when the pair shared a stage in 2015.

“It was something like, ‘Believe in yourself and keep doing what you’re doing,’” the Dane reveals in an exclusive interview with Goal at Chelsea's Cobham Training Centre.

What she does remember, though, is how people started watching her more closely afterwards. Taking centre stage at an awards show with Swedish superstar Ibrahimovic was always going to garner Harder extra attention.

And she did not disappoint, establishing herself as one of the finest players in the women’s game over the next few years with her creativity and lethal finishing.

However, it was a seemingly innocuous act off the field that made Harder belatedly realise just how important a public figure she could become.  

After an ecstatic Magda Eriksson had helped Sweden reach the quarter-finals of last year's Women's World Cup, she sought out Harder, who was in the crowd, and the couple shared a kiss.  

Perfectly natural, nothing unusual: player kisses partner after important victory. Eriksson and Harder understandably thought nothing of it.

Images of the two quickly went viral, though, held up as a beautiful symbol of pure love in a world still divided by hate. Within a matter of minutes, Harder suddenly had thousands more followers on her social media channels.

Pernille Harder Magda Eriksson Sweden GFXGetty/Goal

"It made me realise that I have a platform; that we have a platform," the 27-year-old explains. "People are listening to me and seeing what happens on my platform.

"It showed me that I have a voice and, after that, I have wanted to use it more because I feel it makes a difference.

"It is very important to have role models, no matter who you are. In our community, it is even more important because it helps you understand that you are not alone by being homosexual or something like this.

"It is a special topic because people maybe don't like to talk about it or they don't want to come out, so, it is important to have role models so that you can feel more secure about yourself."

The LGBT+ community certainly could not have a much better role model than Harder.

She grew up in the small Danish town of Ikast watching Premier League football because of her father, Mogens, who was an avid Manchester United fan.

At the time, Harder had few female role models to look up to, but her dream was to become the best footballer in the world. She has now achieved that goal.

After winning Germany's and UEFA's Women's Player of the Year awards for 2020, the forward has now finished top of the Goal 50 rankings, pipping Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema to top spot.

Pernille Harder Goal 50 GFXGoal

Harder's No.1 ranking was well deserved. The striker scored 38 goals in all competitions as Wolfsburg won the double in Germany and reached the final of the Champions League, where they were beaten 3-1 by Lyon.

That defeat in Vienna was tough to take, particularly as Harder has yet to get her hands on a winners' medal in Europe's premier club cup competition.

"Of course, I need to win it," she admits. "It is unfinished business until I have won it. But that's why I came to Chelsea, because the club also has those ambitions to win the big titles."

There's no disputing that. Chelsea broke the women's football world record to sign Harder for a reported £250,000 ($330,000) ahead of the start of the 2020-21 Women's Super League campaign.

Harder's father obviously would have preferred to see his daughter move to Manchester United, and fans pleaded with her online to join their club instead.

However, Harder's mind had already been made up. Mogens may be a long-time United fan, but Harder has been following Chelsea for some time now because of Eriksson.

"Playing for Chelsea is weird for my dad but now he now supports the women's side at least," Harder laughs.

"He still supports Man United's men's team as he's such a big fan but soon I will bring him his first Chelsea shirt and see if he wants to wear it! I won't force him, though!

"But, obviously, I watched Chelsea games during the previous three years because Magda plays here, as many games as I could.

"And I had become a little bit of a fan because I wanted things to go well for Magda. So, now it's even more fun to be part of this team too."

Everything seems to have fallen perfectly into place for Harder, but there will be no let up, no resting on her laurels.

She wants that Champions League winners’ medal, and she wants to continue proving herself the best player in the world.

"I think the most difficult part of getting to the top is staying there,” Harder says. “You should not be satisfied with what you have done and say, ‘Okay, that’s it.’

"So, that's what motivates me, to keep being one of the best players in the world. If I felt like I was complete, and satisfied with what I have done now, then I would quit playing because I would stop finding football fun."

There is no chance of that, though. Just as there is no chance of Harder of giving up a platform that she knows he can use to make a real difference.

Indeed, Harder is now fully aware that she can be just as big a force off the field, as she is on it.

The young woman that once shared a stage with Ibrahimovic is now a star in her own right.