Pierre speaks about his career so far
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg recently opened up to us in an interview for the club's matchday magazine, SAINTS. Read the feature here...
When Pierre-Emile Højbjerg speaks, it is sometimes hard to believe he has only recently turned 21.
It is not just the midfielder’s eloquence, or his rich and deep perspective on life that makes you forget you are talking with someone so young. There’s also his physical stature, which seems to be well beyond his years too.
Yet, as he recounts the events of his life that have helped to shape him, it is perhaps the strength he has shown off the pitch that is most striking.
When you find something that you know is for you, you hold on tight and don't let go.pierre-emile højbjerg
on his love of football
Højbjerg grew up in Østerbro, a district of Copenhagen, as the second of three children, and was introduced to football at the age of five, when he started attending some of the training sessions that his brother, who is just over a year older than him, took part in.
Initially, Højbjerg hadn’t enjoyed the experience, but he soon became more comfortable and can even vividly recall the exact session when it clicked for him.
“It was so fun and, since that day, I didn't stop with a week without football,” he says, breaking into his trademark smile.
“I really loved the game. I found myself with the game, and, when you find something that you just know is you, you don't let go of it. You hold on tight and you do your best.”
Højbjerg’s desire to do just that meant that, at the age of 14, two years after joining FC Copenhagen, he would have the courage to make the first major decision of his career.
“I went there and had a good time, but they put me as a striker after one year, as I was quite a bit bigger than the others,” he says. “I didn't really enjoy it, and I started asking myself ‘Is football the most important thing in your life?’
“Then, at 14, I changed club to Brøndby, and this is like changing from Everton to Liverpool – it's really like going to the enemy.
“I remember at that time I had a lot of friends in the club and around, and they all texted me and said ‘How can you do that?’ and ‘I thought you were loyal and an honest man?’ But I never looked at it that way, because I was honest with myself.
“I was not happy where I was, and sometimes you’ve got to make a choice – are you satisfied with being one out of 15 and just doing what you were told, or do you go to a place where you feel you can be a part of something, but can also change something?
“Brøndby was not the best team – the best team was the one I left, Copenhagen – but I went there and two years later we won the league and three years later I went to Bayern Munich, so I can't say it was wrong, but I took some hits.”
Ironically, it would be in a 5-2 win over Copenhagen, in which Højbjerg scored twice and set up another for Brøndby, that he was spotted by Bayern Munich talent scout Michael Tarnat.
Højbjerg recalls of Tarnat: “When I came to Bayern Munich in January for the signing, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, the chief executive, said he was calling us and saying ‘If you don't buy him, I will buy him with my own money.’”
Tarnat, of course, was not left out of pocket, as Højbjerg duly completed his move to Bayern.
Life seemed to be going perfectly for the youngster, but he and his family were soon to be dealt a heartbreaking setback.
“I remember two weeks after my 18th birthday, my father called me and said he had got cancer,” recalls Højbjerg.
“When I hung up, I went to the club and I was crying. I spoke to them, and the club then took my father and made medical resources available for him, because the Danish doctor said ‘In one year you will be dead, so we don't want to treat you.’
“Like I am, my father also was a fighter and a guy who never gave up, so I took him down to me and he came every second week for one week, and he did that over six times, to get the chemotherapy.
“At that moment, I was fighting for a place in the team to play for just small minutes and he was fighting for his life. I can't say that we were fighting on the same level, but in spirit we were both fighting for something we would give our lives to.
i had my championship medal. i went back home and saw my dad. it was the last time i saw him.pierre-emile Højbjerg
on the loss of his father
“I remember I came to him one time in the hospital to see him. The doctor said to me before ‘He needs to rest, it's not good if he walks too much.’ But I look in and can't see him. I step inside the door and hear a machine going... then I look round and he's sitting on a bike! I say to him 'What the hell are you doing?' and he's like 'Yeah, but you gotta stay fit, no?' He was a fighter and trying to get the best out of every situation.
“Those moments were maybe some of the best times I had with my dad ever, because we came really close to each other.”
Unfortunately, despite surgery to remove the tumour from his stomach, Højbjerg’s dad would not survive.
"He got the surgery in January, but he never really came after that,” remembers Højbjerg. “It was hard for him. The last time I saw my dad was the 27th of March. It was the time I won the championship for the second time, the first year of Guardiola at the club.
“I played some games, so I had the medal, and I went back home and saw my dad and we were both emotional. We cried and we hugged. It was a special day for me and it was the last time I saw him.
“He was a big fan of football. If I could come on, he was watching it and it was giving him energy, so I was doing everything to come on. I remember he saw my first starting game, five days before he died. I'm happy that he saw me play.
“When I was at his funeral I saw how big an inspiration my dad was not only to me, but to other people. He was a professor in a university. He had a doctor grade in anthropology. So, let me say, if I was arguing with him I was never winning... and I'm good in arguing!
“I think the biggest thing you can do in your life, or the biggest motivation for me, is to make my family happy and to make my family proud. Of course to be better, but I know if I get better my family becomes proud.”
Still, perspective, by its nature, is not something that comes instantly.
"After he died it was a hard time,” admits Højbjerg. “I played the cup final three weeks after (Højbjerg started and helped Bayern to a 2-0 extra-time win over Borussia Dortmund) and I had a good period, but then I remember four, five, six, seven months after it was very hard.
“It was very hard motivating yourself to train and do the small details every day. I asked myself sometimes 'Will you ever get the joy of training or the joy of pushing yourself to the maximum back?' but at one point I got it again and you find a way not to be sad that he's gone, but to be proud that you can show the world what he gave you.
“Sometimes when you lose somebody, you ask yourself in the morning, ‘What do I have to fight for today?’ and I remember being very angry at life, feeling unfairly treated, but suddenly I said to myself ‘Ok, it's stupid to say ‘That's life,’ because it's not normal, but it happened.’ So give the world what he gave to you.
“I must say I appreciate the small things, the things you maybe don't see, but that you feel. I believe in the end, as a sportsman, as a family man, as a human being, that the small things in life will make the big change.
“I can't say that when you wake up you make a big change, because nobody I know of ever did that. You make little by little every day, and it's the same with the talent you have. To know I'm a football player and I do every day a little bit for myself so that I can become over time something bigger. That is, of course, the goal.”
It was that same motivation that led to Højbjerg making the choice to leave Bayern and move to Southampton last summer.
“It's like when I was small,” he says. “I could be there, I could be in maybe one of the best teams in the world, I could be in the team photo and all the posters and make autographs and say 'I'm a Bayern Munich player' but would I be happy with that? No. I know I wouldn't be happy with that.
“I was not happy to just be a part of it. I was not happy just to be in the biggest club in the world, with a fantastic coach, with fantastic people around it. As much as I loved Bayern Munich, as much as I felt at home, you need to leave home to grow up.”
SOUTHampton is like a flower that is about to blossom.pierre-emile Højbjerg
on why he chose southampton
Højbjerg is now settled at Saints and has a new home in Winchester, where he is visited regularly by girlfriend Josephine, who studies and lives in Denmark.
"I have found myself pretty quick in Winchester,” he says. “It's a nice place. I have my apartment, my car, my phone, my team, my girlfriend coming over, so things can't be so wrong.”
In truth, Højbjerg never doubted they would be.
“I came to Southampton because I spoke to the people there and I felt immediately captivated by it,” he says. “I remember calling my agent in the morning, and I said ‘I spoke with the coach, I spoke with some people and it needs to be this. Forget everything else, I will go tomorrow to Southampton.’
“It’s like a flower that is about to blossom. I saw so much potential in the club that I said ‘Ok, this is the right place for me.’ I also said to people, ‘I don't go to Southampton to make the next step to a bigger club.’ This is not the reason I'm here. I go to Southampton to make Southampton go to the next level.
“I know that I will not do it alone and I will not do it just me, but I can be a part of it and I believe that I can be in the team where we change things to something better.”
That determination to improve and to be the best he can be is clearly ingrained in Højbjerg, but it was also reinforced at Bayern.
“When you see world class players every day, you eat with them, you change with them, you pass the ball to them, you hear them speak, everything, this is where you become aware of what it takes to become a top player,” he says.
“If I say that the biggest talent will always be the biggest player, this is a lie. I saw that at Bayern Munich. Some of the players were not the biggest talents, but what they put into themselves to come to Bayern Munich was very simple – it's hard work, it's dedication, and belief. Then you come for me very far.
“If you are with big players you need to put yourself up there, otherwise you will always be a guy who is just around them and not with them, and I wanted to be with them.”
Højbjerg adds: “For me, and this is what I got from Bayern Munich – win. What will stand after your football career is not if you were a nice guy, a bad guy, a beautiful guy, an ugly guy. It will be all about trophies. How much did you win?”
And with Højbjerg fighting for Southampton, the chances of the club winning something soon might just have got that bit greater.
This interview appeared in this season's Everton edition of our matchday magazine, SAINTS. To read more of our in-depth features with Southampton's players, visit saintsmagazines.co.uk to subscribe or buy individual copies.