Until the age of 16, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg had one of those classic football stories. The Spurs and Denmark midfielder started young, was spotted by Bayern Munich and endured the difficult move to a foreign country, away from his family.
But then his father, Christian, was diagnosed with cancer and moved to Germany to be with his teenage son while he underwent chemotherapy.
Suddenly, when he was only 17 years old, the young footballer became a caretaker.
Speaking to the BBC’s Football Focus, Hojbjerg talks about that experience, his father’s death and the “scars” he still has.
“My father would always take care of me, then suddenly I had to take care of him,” he says. “I was cooking for him, putting him to bed, making sure he got his medication and all these things. These things scar you a little bit.
“It didn’t go as we hoped, he passed away in April . I finished the season, played in the cup final, made my debut with the national team. From a sporting point of view the season ended on a very high note, but from a life point of view it ended on a very low note.
“I had a hard time motivating myself. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever spoken like that.”
Going to Germany alone at the age of 16
Hojbjerg’s football journey began in his hometown of Copenhagen, after a scout from Bundesliga giants Bayern Munch spotted him playing in a local derby.
Six months later he moved his “whole life to Germany”.
“I was there at the airport, my mom and dad were there. They were driving me, they stood on the escalators and I waved to them and I could have easily cried at that time, easily,” she says.
“But I stayed strong because I was waiting for the opportunity ahead. I’m really grateful that I did it, because I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about this football world that I always dreamed of. I remember it was difficult for my mother.
“My dad thought it was a nice challenge but he told me to stay at school, that was the only deal we made. I never did, but let’s not go there!
“I sacrificed a lot because I was 16, almost 17, moving out of the country, leaving your comfort zone and your friends behind, it’s a bit overwhelming you know.”
“Sad, frustrated, angry” – father’s cancer diagnosis
Hojbjerg signed for Bayern in July 2012 and spent a year in Munich before his father fell ill.
Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes then gave the teenager his first-team debut in April 2013, aged 17 years and 251 days. At that time he was the club’s youngest ever player.
“I remember I was injured at the beginning of August ”, Hojbjerg recalls.
“I thought ‘my life is over, I can’t play for a couple of weeks, everything is so bad’.
“A couple of days later, my dad called me and it was really hard for him to talk. He was very quiet and didn’t say a word, but I stayed on the phone and asked him what was going on and he said he wasn’t well and he had cancer.
“I remember being very sad, very sad. I was frustrated, even angry, because I was so far from home and it puts everything into perspective.
“In this case, they tried to prolong his life, not save it.
“I will forever be grateful to Bayern Munich because they helped me a lot and I talked to them and they said ‘Welcome to Munich’ and we will find a solution. My father came to Munich six times in 10 days, where he received chemotherapy.”
“I always tried to be strong, then I paid for it”
“What makes me sleep better at night is that the best time I spent with my dad was that time,” says Hojbjerg, who went from a young footballer eager to make his mark to a troubled 17-year-old. and responsibilities
“When he came, I really showed him that I knew how to take care of myself and I could take care of myself and I was going to show him that I’m really becoming a man.
“We had great conversations, we had difficult conversations, some that will stay with me forever, and some that hurt me a little bit, because I wish I was here today.
“The only thing that made it hard for me was that I always tried to be strong, I never had a sad face in front of him and I paid for that later in my life because I held back a lot.”
“My father is very much with me, in everything I do”
Hojbjerg, now 27, made his Bayern debut five days after the death of his father in April 2014, then spent six months on loan at Augsburg and a year at Schalke before sealing a deal. £12.8m move to Southampton in July 2016.
After spending four years on the south coast, he arrived in London a £16m switch to Tottenham and has continued to make his mark in the Premier League as a dominant presence in the center of midfield.
“I had difficulties for a couple of years [after his father’s death]”, says Hojbjerg. “I didn’t find my true purpose until I had my daughter. I remember when I had my daughter I told my mother that life had finally given me something back. My kids are everything. I will do everything for them.
“My dad is very much with me – in everything I do – and he inspires me as my family does, as do my children, so they are with me.
“I really believe that – not only in football, but in life – what you give to the people around you, the sacrifices you make, you will get back.
“Sometimes I even say to myself that I didn’t succeed at Bayern, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t be who I am without the three years I had there. I always call it the school of champions.”