Until the age of 16, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg had one of those classic football back stories. The Spurs and Denmark midfielder started young, was spotted by Bayern Munich and endured a difficult move to a foreign country, away from his family.
But then his dad, Christian, was diagnosed with cancer and moved to Germany to be with his teenage son while he underwent chemotherapy.
Suddenly, aged just 17, the young footballer became a carer.
Speaking to BBC’s Football Focus, Hojbjerg talks about that experience, his dad’s death and the “scars” he still bears.
“My father would always take care of me, then suddenly I had to take care of him,” he says. “I was cooking for him, I was putting him in bed, making sure that he got his medication and all of these things. These things scar you a bit.
“It didn’t go as we hoped, he passed away in April . I finished the season, I played the cup final, I got my national team debut. From a sports perspective the season really finished on a high, but from a life perspective it really finished on a low.
“I had difficulty to motivate myself. It’s the first time actually that I have spoken about it like this.”
- You can watch the full interview on Football Focus, BBC 1, Saturday 29 October, from 12:00 BST
Moving to Germany alone at 16
Hojbjerg’s footballing journey began in his home city of Copenhagen, after a scout for Bundesliga giants Bayern Munch saw his potential while playing in a local derby.
Six months later he moved his “whole life to Germany”.
“I was there in the airport, my mother and father were there. They drove me, they stood on the escalators and I was waving at them and I could easily have cried that time, easily,” he says.
“But I stayed strong because I was looking forward to the opportunity ahead. I’m very grateful that I actually did it because I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about this football world that I always somehow dreamt of. I remember it was difficult for my mother.
“My father thought it was a nice challenge but he told me that I had to continue in school, that was the only deal that we made. I never did – but let’s not go there!
“I sacrificed a lot because I was 16, almost 17, going out of the country, leaving your comfort zone and your friends behind, it touches you a bit you know.”
‘Sad, frustrated, angry’ – dad’s cancer diagnosis
Hojbjerg signed for Bayern in July 2012 and spent a year in Munich before his dad became ill.
Then Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes gave the teenager his first-team debut in April, 2013, aged 17 years, 251 days. At that point he was the club’s youngest ever player.
“I remember getting injured in the beginning of August ,” Hojbjerg recalls.
“I thought ‘my life is finished I can’t play for a couple of weeks, everything is really bad’.
“A couple of days later, my father calls me and it was really difficult for him to speak. He was very quiet and not saying any words, but staying on the phone and I asked what’s wrong and he said it wasn’t good and he had cancer.
“I remember being very sad, really sad. I was frustrated, also angry because I was so far away from home and it puts everything into perspective.
“In this case, they tried to extend his life, not save it.
“I will be forever grateful to Bayern Munich because they helped me a lot and I spoke to them and they said ‘OK come to Munich’ and we will find a solution. My father came to Munich over six times of around 10 days, where he got his chemotherapy.”
‘I always tried to be strong, I paid for that later’
“What makes me sleep better at night is that the best time I actually had with my father was that time,” says Hojbjerg, who quickly turned from a young footballer eager to make his mark, to a 17-year-old man with worries and responsibilities.
“When he came, I could really show him that I knew how to take care of myself and I could take care of him and I could show him that I am actually becoming a man.
“We had some great talks, we had some difficult talks, some that will stay with me forever, also some that hurt me a bit because I would love for him to be here today.
“The only thing that was 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 on in my life because I held so much back.”
‘My father is with me a lot – in everything I do’
Hojbjerg, now 27, made his first Bayern start five days after his dad’s death in April 2014, then spent six months on loan at Augsburg and a year at Schalke before sealing a £12.8m move to Southampton in July, 2016.
After four years on the south coast, he arrived in London following a £16m switch to Tottenham and has continued to make his mark on the Premier League as a commanding presence at the heart of their midfield.
“I had difficulty for a couple of years [after his father’s death],” Hojbjerg says. “I just didn’t find the real purpose until I had my daughter. I remember saying to my mother when I had my daughter that finally life gave me something back. My kids are everything. I will do everything for them.
“My father is with me a lot – in everything I do – and he gives me inspiration like my family do, like my kids do, so they are with me.
“I truly believe that a lot – not just in football, but in life – of what you are giving to the people around you, the sacrifices you make, you will get it back.
“Sometimes, I also say to myself that I didn’t make it in 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.”