Wednesday 25 May 2022, 09:00

Denmark’s Hojbjerg talks grief, growth and glory

  • Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is a key player for Denmark and Tottenham Hotspur

  • The midfielder has come through significant personal and professional challenges

  • He speaks to FIFA about the emotions that drive him and his hopes for Qatar 2022

Rigshospitalet is the biggest hospital in Denmark and routinely finds itself ranked as one of the best in the world. It also happens to offer an outlook – across trees and football pitches – on the country’s national stadium, Parken.

Together, these venues exert an enduring, emotional influence on the life and career of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was born in Rigshospitalet, grew up in its Osterbro district and, as he did so, running out at Parken became – and remained – an obsession.

Even after realising that dream many times over, and despite moving abroad when he was just 17, that Copenhagen arena – and its nearby hospital – continued to loom large in his story. Both of his children were born in Rigshospitalet, and it was there that a short, frantic journey from Parken was made following his friend Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest at UEFA EURO 2020.

But long before it hit the headlines for its role in the saving of Eriksen’s life, Hojbjerg had sat in that same hospital spending time with – then saying goodbye to – his beloved father. This was when he was still 18, less than a year after his dream move to Bayern Munich but, crucially, just weeks before he broke into Denmark’s senior side.

As he told FIFA: “I’ve always had a strong emotional connection with the national team. It was a big dream of my father, and for me too, that I would play for the team one day.

“As my father was getting more and more ill, I was getting closer and closer to doing that. I actually remember there was a national team game in March of that year, and I was called up with the U-21s. I’d really hoped to be with the first team and, looking back now, I can see that I was angry.”

The call he craved arrived just over two months later. Cruelly, it came just too late for this shared dream to be realised by both father and son.

“He passed away a month before my debut,” Hojbjerg explained. “The last time I saw him, I’d become a German champion for the second time under Pep Guardiola. We watched the [title-clinching] game on German TV because I’d asked for time off to be with my father as he was really struggling by then.

Pierre Emile Hojbjerg (FC Bayern München).

“The hospital he was being treated in is just next door to Parken and I remember being with him, looking out the window at the stadium, and him saying, ‘Now you just need to play for the national team and you’ve had a great year.’ We were laughing, and that stuck with me.

“I truly believe he is with me every day, but for him not to be able to watch me play for the national team hurt me a lot. I remember scoring my first goal for Denmark and finding it difficult to enjoy it and be happy because I was missing the one guy I wanted to see it. People were asking me the next day, ‘Why are you not happy? You’re 18 and you’ve just scored for the national team’. “But I wasn’t happy and, looking back, it eventually took over in my club career too. I was trying to do some sort of grieving and not giving myself the space to do it.”

Although he has made his name as a tough, tireless and fiercely committed midfielder, it should come as no surprise to hear Hojbjerg speak with such emotion and eloquence. This self-described “Viking” has a sensitive side too, and it came to the fore again – bringing thoughts of his absent father and tears – when Denmark reached the EURO semi-finals.

“I get, you know (mimics a lump in his throat) when I talk with my mother about those moments, which I know he would have loved to see,” Hojbjerg explained. “But I always say, ‘Yeah, but he is seeing it. He is there and he is following it through me, through my brother and my sister, through my uncles – he is seeing it.

“That feeling of missing out also sort of changed a bit when my kids arrived. I use that love, and I do it for them. Since I’ve had my kids I’ve found a way to live with [the grief] and found a place for it.”

Despite his current status as a linchpin for club and country – loved and lauded by the teams’ respective coaches – Hojbjerg has endured professional setbacks as well as personal heartbreak. Among the most bruising, he says, was his omission from the Denmark squad for the last FIFA World Cup™.

“That was painful. It’s not a nice memory for me,” he admitted. “I’ve said before, though, that it was maybe the most important time in my senior football career because I learned a lot and appreciated and focused a lot on small things, working very hard on myself.

"Mentally, it was a battle. But I definitely came out from that battle much, much stronger. I don’t want to say it, but maybe it was what I needed.”

With Hojbjerg a more accomplished and rounded player and personality than he was in 2018, there is no chance – provided he remains injury-free – of him missing a second FIFA World Cup. Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand is a huge fan and has frequently lauded a player he describes as “bringing immense passion” and “contributing a lot, both offensively and defensively”.

That admiration is reciprocated, too, with Hojbjerg glowing in his assessment of a coach who has managed to blend success and slick, free-flowing football with an invaluable personal touch.

He said: “With Kasper, I go all the way and he knows that. He’s a coach that, for me, is really a bit groundbreaking in terms of his approach. Technically and tactically, he’s a very special coach and, as a human, he’s a very modern leader. He’s special.

“Sometimes you feel with him, ‘How do you find time for everyone?’ Because it seems that he gives everyone time. But then he has that focus when the games come, and in training. He’s a guy who goes into my heart.”

Remarkably, Hjulmand has succeeded not only in establishing that emotional connection with his players, but in extending it from the team to the wider nation. The result is a country that has fallen deeply in love with its national side, and matches at Parken that provide food for the soul as well as a feast for the eyes.

“When we are playing it feels like we are one,” Hojbjerg said of the relationship between team and fans. “Emotionally, we are very connected and this is something special and very powerful. It’s also something that’s not forced - it comes naturally, and it’s very unique. I can recommend a lot coming to a game in Parken because it’s quite special.”

The side’s success and the relatability of its coach and players naturally form part of that story. But as Hjulmand acknowledged in a recent interview with FIFA, the shared ordeal of Eriksen’s very public brush with death served to strengthen existing bonds as a traumatised nation “healed together”.

“It was a focal point,” agreed Hojbjerg. “Everyone gathered around it and got closer. We were like this before but [after Eriksen’s collapse] it became even clearer and more real.

“Fortunately, the story is now beautiful in every single way: Christian is here with us today, we as a team eventually did well and everyone is proud. In that sense it became a beautiful story. And it’s fantastic to see him back.”

With Eriksen not just back, but back with a bang, and the team having cruised through qualifying in his absence, there is much excitement about Denmark’s FIFA World Cup prospects. And just as Hjulmand has embraced the tag of dark horses for the title – “the only thing better would be to be called one of the favourites” – so his midfield lieutenant is setting no limits on what can be achieved.

“The belief is great – a belief in our own qualities and in what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s also the strength of understanding that, ok, we’re not Brazil, Germany or France, but we have something the others don’t have. We just have to be able to use that and see how far we can go with it.”

Passion, togetherness and the talents of a well-balanced team certainly proved to be a potent blend in qualifying. If Hojbjerg and Co can maintain those sky-high standards, a triumphant and emotionally charged Parken December homecoming might well be within their grasp this December.