On February 14, Pernille Harder played her hundredth competitive game for VfL Wolfsburg, three years and two days after her first. The Danish captain marked the occasion with her 91st and 92nd goals for the German champions.
All of the goals - literally, all of them
Harder was an accomplished footballer before she moved to Germany, having won the Swedish league with Linköping, scoring 85 goals in 109 matches in all competitions during her five seasons in Sweden. She marked her first senior appearance for Denmark, aged 16, with a hat trick. Despite the lowly opposition on the day (Georgia), the teenager dazzled, already on the precipice of becoming a world class footballer. Now, Harder has added another 56 goals to her tally for her national team in her subsequent 114 appearances and has risen to the captaincy.
There are some players who truly have to be seen to be believed, and for those who have been lucky enough to see Pernille Harder live, it’s nigh impossible to adequately describe her to those who haven’t. Like trying to explain just what it feels like to get a tattoo, you fall back onto the, “You just have to get one.” To understand why those who’ve seen Harder rave about her like she’s a narcotic, one must see her to fully understand. And when you do see Harder, no matter how much time passes, you remember that first match in vivid detail.
A personal first
Not including the thousands of matches I’ve watched on streams since, I have attended 176 games live since the first time I was fortunate enough to see Pernille Harder live. Those 176 blur and meld together, goals and fouls may stay clear but largely, one football match becomes an interchangeable entity with the next. The first time I saw Vivianne Miedema, the first Sam Kerr match I attended, my first time watching Marta; they have become indistinguishable memories. Some players resonate if they impress the first time I watch them live, a radar ping chiming in my head each subsequent time I watch them, but no one compares to Harder.
Eight months before they squared off on the opening day of the 2017 European Championships, Denmark traveled to Tubize to play Belgium at the end of November 2016. It was a bitingly cold day and the majority of the Danish team were Brøndby players who’d just been knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester City. The Danes were led out by Harder and were on top in the first half with the captain dictating play from an advanced midfield role.
Harder’s platinum-blonde hair draws the eye, and for the majority of the match she remained a focal point of my vision. The remarkable thing about Harder wasn’t just her well-taken goals that night but her movement and more specifically, her vision. For 90 minutes the Danish captain watched the match unfold, her ponytail bouncing left then right as she looked over one shoulder and forward again. Over and over, Harder pivoted her neck, taking stock of the ever-changing landscape on the pitch, locating the space and adapting her positioning then passing to match. Constantly moving, constantly looking, constantly adapting, Harder ran the show. Even when Belgium came back strongly after the break and pressed their home advantage, two well placed balls gave Harder her game-deciding brace.
Though she wasn’t the centre forward in the team, the captain understood the evolving picture on the pitch to place herself perfectly to receive a pass over the top and to get in behind and get the better of the goalkeeper.
The walk back from the stadium to Tubize station (to catch the last train back to Brussels) was a brisk one but the resounding thought in my mind was simply, “Wow: Harder.”
The best of the best
As people who watch football, whether as fans or people working within the sport, there will always be players we consider our favourites. Some aren’t the best footballers, but they are genuinely nice humans that exude a warmth that is hard not to be charmed by. Some are home town legends, some will be cult figures, some might be MOP candidates and some are legitimately and shudderingly world class.
I, like most, will always be ready to argue with others about who the best player of the year or season or league or tournament has been. And I, like so many who have been fortunate enough to witness Pernille Harder play on multiple occasions, will always be willing to go to bat for the spellbinding Dane.