It was only a kiss. The same scene, that same display of affection, is played out after every match at a major tournament as players meet loved ones.
But from the ordinary came something extraordinary. Pernille Harder first realised it was happening later that evening, when her phone began buzzing incessantly. “By the time I looked, I had 3,000 more Instagram followers,” she recalled with a laugh.
Harder, the Denmark and Wolfsburg star, had been one half of that now-famous kiss. The other was Chelsea’s Magda Eriksson, whose Sweden team had just beaten Canada at the Parc des Princes to qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ quarter-finals.
The pair, former team-mates with Linkopings, had never made a secret of the fact that they were together. But nor had they gone out of their way to publicly advertise either their relationship or sexuality.
It was that fateful photo, and the reaction to it, which convinced both players that a higher profile could yield unforeseen benefits.
“The whole thing was really unexpected,” Harder told FIFA.com. “First and foremost, I didn’t know there was a photographer there, so I didn’t even know the photo existed. And then the reaction was just amazing.
“It was good to see actually, just how massive and positive the feedback was and how many nice comments there were from right across the world. It caused a lot of discussion, with very little negativity, and that was really cool.
“It also made Magda and I realise that we are role models not only in football, but in this area too. That’s something we’ve embraced because we know that we’re lucky in feeling secure and calm in being open about our relationship.
“If we can help other people be themselves – and feel good about being themselves – we really want to do that.”
The sight of two elite footballers being so open, unabashed and natural in their affection had been inspirational.
“So many people wrote to me on Instagram saying they looked up to us and how much we’d helped them,” Eriksson said later. “That’s when I understood that we’re really powerful together.”
The pair now wield that power via social media, and through ‘Play Proud’, a campaign to support and empower LGBTQ+ young people. Its focus on education at an early age appealed to Harder. “It’s much more difficult to change someone’s mindset about homosexuality when they’re in their 20s, rather than when they’re only children and can understand that it’s just normal,” she explained.
Of course, while it is the normality of Harder and Eriksson’s relationship – and of that kiss – that struck a chord, they do have some unique challenges to face. The first and most obvious is distance, with the former playing for Germany’s premier side and the latter starring for the newly crowned champions of England.
But more unusual is the fact that they have been pitted directly against each other in some of their teams’ most important matches. And while striker supreme Harder scored and triumphed in the UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-finals in 2018, it was a shutout in Viborg that saw defender Eriksson’s Sweden qualify for France 2019 at Denmark’s expense.
So, how does Harder find the experience of playing against her partner?
“I don’t like it,” she said with a smile, “but only because Magda’s so annoying as a defender! Honestly, once we’re on the pitch, it’s not an issue. I forget about the fact she’s my girlfriend, and she’s the same. She definitely doesn’t hold back!
“The only time it can be a bit weird is after the games because, as you say, we’ve played against each other in some really big and important matches, which mean a lot to both of us. But I think we’re both good winners and good losers, and we’re really supportive whatever the outcome is. It has never caused any problems between us.”
A more significant barrier to happiness arose recently in the imposing form of COVID-19. The resulting restrictions on travel delayed an already-overdue reunion, and it was only last week – after months apart – that the pair were able to be together again.
“It’s been a difficult time for both of us, and it’s great to be in this position now,” said Harder. “We’re used to being apart, of course, but it was the feeling of not knowing when we could be together again that was tough in this situation.
“Madga had been in Sweden for some months and was waiting for a decision from the English FA before she could travel to Germany. Then, even when that decision came, getting to Germany wasn’t easy with all the restrictions. And when she finally got here, we couldn’t see each other for a week because she had to stay in quarantine. It’s definitely been a long road getting to this point.”
Everyone will be able to relate to the feelings of frustration, isolation and, finally, joy that recent months have brought Harder and Eriksson. And it is their relatability, beyond their profile as elite footballers, that make this star duo such a formidable force for good.