The football world looked on with interest last season as 16-year-old Norwegian sensation Martin Odegaard pondered his many career options. Courted by Europe’s biggest clubs, the prodigy had trials with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich before finally opting to sign for the Spanish giants.
During his stay in Germany, the in-demand Odegaard crossed paths with another Scandinavian player with whom he has more than a few things in common, Bayern’s young Danish midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Like the young Norwegian, Hojbjerg was himself a much-coveted tyro, leaving home at the age of 16 to sign for the Bavarian powerhouses. Having now turned 20, he is striving hard to fulfil expectations and is seen as one of the spearheads of the Danish national team, which has made qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ its prime objective.
Invariably compared to the Laudrup brothers Brian and Michael, Hojbjerg chose to move to Bayern after spells with FC Copenhagen and Brondby, a decision that was questioned by several experts, who argued that he left home too soon and would have been better served by picking up experience in familiar surroundings before putting his abilities to the test in a major league.
Not surprisingly, Hojbjerg rejects that view. As he explained in an interview with FIFA.com, he believes the choice he made was the right one: “I got out of my comfort zone and it’s been good for me. It was important for me to take on a new challenge, and I needed a kick in the behind to get myself back on track.
“When you play with people the same age and you’re a little bit ahead of them, you don’t always see the need to push yourself. As a result, you don’t get the chance to take yourself to the next level.” As the dynamic midfielder has found out, life is very different at Bayern: “I’m playing with world-class footballers here. I have to give my very best the whole time and even push beyond that.”
Capped seven times by his country already, Hojbjerg is making a name for himself in Germany, having made 17 German Bundesliga and three UEFA Champions League appearances to date.
*A long road
*No sooner had the hugely promising Danish teenager arrived in Bavaria than he was training with the Bayern first team, coached at the time by Jupp Heynckes. His first outing with the U-19s earned him an instant promotion to the reserves, and a few weeks later came the call to join the first team for good, a dizzying rise that was all down to talent and hard work.
Taking stock of the effort he expended on his arrival in Munich, Hojbjerg said: “The professional players operated at the same high pace, but they were used to it. As for me, I felt like I was playing a final every day. I wanted to get myself noticed. That was all that mattered to me, but after a while I just felt mentally drained.”
I got out of my comfort zone and it’s been good for me. It was important for me to take on a new challenge, and I needed a kick in the behind to get myself back on track.
Explaining his determination to seize the opportunity he had been presented with and overcome the challenges in front of him, the young Dane added: “I progressed really fast but when you’re going through it all you always feel like things are moving too slowly. I’m a very ambitious person, though in the end, you just have to keep your head and be realistic. I feel like things have worked out pretty well for me so far.”
Aware that every young player has to take one step back in order to take two forward, Hojbjerg embarked on a loan spell with fellow Bundesliga outfit Augsburg last season, making 16 appearances and helping them earn a surprise place in this season’s UEFA Europa League before returning to Bayern.
“It was a really useful time for me and I learned more about myself, both physically and mentally,” he said, reflecting on that experience. “It also allowed me to get into a good rhythm. I learned how you have to train in the week leading up to a match and how to prepare for the game itself. I also became aware of how the body reacts to the work it’s put through and I learned to manage repetitive workloads.”
*Hojbjerg’s steep learning curve has also seen him embark on his international career, with Denmark coach Morten Olsen drafting him into the national side on a regular basis. “I spoke to him recently and, like me, he feels that seven caps at the age of 20 is pretty good going,” said the up-and-coming midfielder. “I’ve still got a lot to do, though, and we have a lot of objectives to fulfil.”
High among them is earning a place at Russia 2018, a tournament Hojbjerg is especially keen on being part of. Asked if he followed the recent Preliminary Draw closely, he replied, without a moment’s hesitation: “Of course! We’ll be up against Romania, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia and Kazakhstan.”
Despite acknowledging that the task will be a tough one for Olsen’s side, Hojbjerg was nevertheless pleased that the Danes had sidestepped Europe’s big guns: “At least we managed to avoid Spain, France, the Netherlands and Germany.”
In his view, Denmark have what it takes to qualify and to make his goal of gracing the World Cup come true much sooner than he ever dared hope for. “I was seven in 2002,” he said recalling their Korea/Japan campaign with a glint in his eye. “We went out and replayed every game in the street or the garden. We went crazy about it.”
If the pundits are to be believed, the Danish Dynamite, who reached the quarter-finals at France 1998, could be about to scale new heights with the Copenhagen-born youngster. For the time being, however, Hojbjerg is focusing on making his way, just like the young Odegaard, whom he came across again in a recent pre-season tournament.
Giving his view on the long road facing the gifted Norwegian, one he is now treading, the exciting Dane said: “It’s not so difficult to make it if you’ve got the talent, though age is a key factor and it can make things tougher. After all, how many people would dare to have faith in a 16-year-old?”
The Bayern tyro knows what it means to have that question hanging over your head, though as he has shown in already creating a niche for himself, he has what it takes to kick on and reach the top.