Caroline Graham Hansen Is The Best In The World

There were two particular moments during the recently concluded Barcelona-Brann quarterfinal tie in the Women’s Champions League that best exemplified how Barcelona has transcended from mere soccer team to living legend. Funny enough, both came when Brann scored.

The first was when, in the first leg of the tie two Wednesdays ago, Norwegian wing back Cecilie Kvamme capped a breakneck Brann counter with a goal in the 39th minute, which leveled the match at a goal apiece. After sneaking the ball inside the near post and into Barça’s net, Kvamme’s arms shot into the air and began to flail about wildly, her jaw and eyelids both opened to their maximum extension. The way her hands clasped onto her head and face gave the impression that she was trying to prevent the top of her skull from shooting off into outer space and her smile from splitting open her cheeks.

The second instance, from last Thursday’s second leg, was similar to the first. With 20 minutes left in the match, Norwegian wing back Tomine Svendheim sprinted onto a through ball that took her into the Barça penalty area, and, with her first touch from a tight angle, managed to beat keeper Cata Coll with a shot that clanked off the far post and rolled over the goal line. In her celebration, Svendheim managed a little more composure than Kvamme the week prior, but the wide smile on her face and on those of all the teammates who ran over to mob her expressed the same sentiment: a feeling of pure shock and unreserved joy to have scored against what will go down as one of and maybe the single best women’s club team in the sport’s history.

Across both legs of the tie, Brann—a minnow on the European stage, having qualified for the UWCL group stage for the first time ever this season —acquitted itself well. The massive underdogs never looked overwhelmed against the reigning Champions League title holders, scored twice, and definitely frustrated Barcelona for stretches of both legs. Nevertheless, Barcelona won both matches more comfortably than the pair of 2-1 scorelines might suggest, and was never really troubled by the Norwegian outfit. At no point did it seem like Brann seriously contemplated even the possibility that they might actually beat Barça, not even after those two goals. Instead, the simple act of scoring, and doing so against this Barça team, was itself enough to send Brann’s players and fans into raptures.

By getting past Brann, Barça has qualified for its sixth consecutive UWCL semifinals. Those semifinals, the ongoing streak of three consecutive finals, the two European Cups they’ve lifted therein, the ongoing streak of three consecutive Ballons d’Or won by two separate players, the sensational style of play, the Barça-heavy Spain squad that won last summer’s World Cup, and the fortuitous timing to have done all of that at the start of what feels like a path-altering boom in women’s soccer, all form the foundation upon which Blaugrana has built its mystique, its status as the most iconic club team in the sport’s history. In reality, though, this season Barça hasn’t quite matched the heights the team has reached in previous years.

You could attribute much of this to injuries, especially center back Mapi León’s torn meniscus, which knocked her out in early December and will probably sideline her for the rest of the season. León is unique, a game-changer both in defense and in attack. Without her the team’s possessions aren’t as fluid and the defense is a lot more fragile. León’s absence, Frida Rolfo’s long surgery rehab (though she’s finally returned to play this month), and Alexia Putellas’s recurrent injuries and as-of-yet inability to recapture her world-conquering form of before, have meant that this Barça hasn’t been as dominant as the one we’re used to seeing.

Mind you, we’re still talking about the best team in Europe, the undisputed queens of Spain, the rightful favorites to repeat as Champions League winners. Aitana Bonmatí is still a superstar. Patri Guijarro and Keira Walsh are still amazing, and those two plus Aitana (and that’s before getting to rotation options like Clàudia Pina and Vicky López and, oh yeah, Alexia freaking Putellas!) still make for a genuinely godly midfield. Summer addition Ona Batlle is now the best full back in the world. Salma Paralluelo has exploded. And what makes even this slightly less exceptional Barça team so awesomely terrifying to play against is that none of those players, nor any other player on the planet, can compete with what Caroline Graham Hansen is doing this season.

Hansen’s stats alone are staggering. Through 30 games in all competitions, the Norwegian winger has 26 goals and 25 assists. That’s more than 50 direct involvements in goals, with a couple more months of soccer to play! That’s almost a goal and an assist every single time she steps on the pitch! Never has the phrase “video game numbers” been more applicable. You don’t even really need to know or care about any of the stats in the following image, just the sheer number of them that she’s in the elite of the elite in tells the story well enough:

For years now Hansen has been the sport’s most destabilizing winger, a legitimately unstoppable dribbler who boasts quickness, a lightning first step, a magnetic close control, and an immediate and omnidirectional ability to change directions as if the concept of momentum were, for her, a mere suggestion. Everything in her game is built around that dribbling ability, but along with it she’s always had a keen eye for a pass, a fantastic cross, and a hard and accurate shot from distance, which have made her a consistent source of goals and a lethal assister. The only things keeping her from more acclaim for her talent have been a couple big injuries, the large shadows of Alexia and Aitana at club level, and Norway’s puzzling penchant for underperforming on the international stage.

But any over-shadowing or under-appreciation no longer applies, not in light of what she’s doing this season. Hansen has brought a new determination to look for goal herself this campaign, trying more often to come inside to shoot rather than always staying wide and looking for crosses and cut-backs the way she’s traditionally liked to play. The tweak has unleashed her. That flood of goals and assists, her still unstoppable dribbling, and her status as the best player on the game’s best and most iconic team, make her without question the star of the season in women’s soccer.

It will be interesting to see how Hansen gets rewarded for her unbelievable play. On one hand, her already astonishing goal and assist numbers would presumably make her the early favorite for the Ballon d’Or. On the other hand, the voting for women’s soccer awards is notoriously bad, uninformed, and skewed heavily in favor of international tournaments. Even if Hansen keeps up this pace of production and Barcelona does go on to win the Champions League, it’s certainly possible that a player with a bigger name gets hot over the summer and wins the Olympics, and that player beats out Hansen, whose Norway did not qualify for the summer tournament, to the game’s most prestigious individual prize.

Either way, I doubt Hansen cares all that much, Hansen has long been overlooked, and the famously reserved player has been content to shrug off the award neglect and let her game do the talking on the pitch. Which makes sense. Out there on the grass, there is nothing louder than Hansen’s talent, and that talent has already helped make herself and her team legends. Her story is far from finished.

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