Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's Denmark takes on Germany at the U21 European Championships in Czech Republic on Saturday. Even at 19, the Bundesliga midfielder has overcome serious challenges on and off the pitch.
Denmark has a rich football heritage: The pantheon of great Danish players stretches from Michael Laudrup to the 1986 World Cup team, a number of European Cup winners and great international footballers.
As Denmark prepares to face Germany in the U21 European Championships in Prague, opportunity beckons for some new stars to come to the fore. One of them is particularly in the spotlight: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Just after helping Denmark to a win over Serbia in qualifying for the men's European Championships next year, Hojbjerg broke down in tears in front of the nation on TV. He looked dead on his feet, drained, the high-tempo 90 minutes of football taking its toll on the 19-year-old. A nation suddenly embraced him too.
"The expectations on him are very high, but he's really well thought of," former Danish international Jesper Gronkjaer told DW. "He comes with a different attitude as a Bayern player, and that's what creates the pressure."
The youngster described his breakdown as a little embarrassing the morning after, as he re-joined his U21 teammates in the Czech Republic. His performance against the Serbians wasn't quite groundbreaking, but he vehemently battled for every ball, a symbolic narrative to summate Hojbjerg's fledging career in the professional game until now.
One columnist for leading Danish newspaper "BK" wrote after the game: "Every time I have to write about him, I need to check that he has still not turned 30, but is just 19 years old. I don't understand."
Hojbjerg’s career path has been a unique one. He swapped Copenhagen for Brondby in 2009, an enrollment into arguably the most distinguished football academy in the country. The names pinned up on the walls inside the club's academy building state the case themselves: the Laudrup brothers, Morten Olsen, Peter Schmeichel and so on.
Kim Vilfort, a European Championship winner with Denmark in 1992 - and likewise a Brondby graduate - is the head of the club's talent school. What caught his eye when he first watched the young Hojbjerg in action wasn't just the skill level of his game, but the intangible qualities that were well beyond his years.
"He looked like a guy with a lot of confidence; he had good skills in attack that was the true impression initially," Vilfort says. "As a person, he was more mature than normal for his age. He was perhaps ready for more grown-up things than others. That stood out for me."
Without playing a first team appearance, the teenager - named Denmark's brightest talent at U17 level - was swiftly courted by Bayern Munich after a recommendation from Swedish talent-spotter Björn Andersson. Michael Tarnat, Bayern's main youth scout, then travelled to Denmark to see him in the flesh before a deal was agreed in 2012.
Tarnat was apparently convinced after seeing him score three goals from midfield and appear well above his peers on the field. "What you can say about Pierre is that he had all the traits and was mentally right to move up to the next level. Most don't, at that age," Vilfort explains.
Triumph and tragedy
After moving to the Tarnat household in Munich, he was making huge leaps on the park. Hojbjerg became a member of the club’s first team in the winter of 2013 and made his debut in April of last year. It made him the youngest player to take the field in the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich.
Guardiola made an effort to encourage the youngster during the early months of his career. However, even with the new-found confidence of arguably the world's best coach, the love of Bayern's supporters or the trust handed down from the very top, Hojbjerg's life was drastically changing behind the scenes.
His father, Christian, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in August 2013. He had been an ardent supporter of Hojbjerg's career even when he was suffering from illness. In his younger days, Hojbjerg had already watched Yussuf Poulsen, a close friend and former teammate, lose his father from the same illness.
When Hojbjerg’s father died in May 2014, just as the Dane was about to drafted in to play Real Madrid in the Champions League, Guardiola consoled him. Six weeks later Hojbjerg lined-up inBayern's starting eleven to face Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup final.
He seamlessly moved into an unfamiliar right wing-back role, turning in a consummate performance with great maturity. "It's incredibly hard to break into Germany for a Danish player. Most players tend to turn to Holland or Belgium, but Hojbjerg looks to be on track, which is impressive," Gronkjaer adds.
Earning his stripes on loan
But his confidence at times had to be kept in check: game time wasn't as forthcoming as he expected with only two full 90 minutes in the league before Christmas. "Maybe I'm just an ambitious, stupid and naive 19-year-old. After all, I had early expectations that didn't fit into Pep's thinking," the midfielder admitted back then.
He signed a new deal until 2018 to keep his future secure, and agreed to join Augsburg on a six-month loan deal. The down-to-earth, collective mood created under Markus Weinzierl was the perfect environment for the player who was hungry to make his mark in the Bundesliga.
Augsburg would even cater to his offensive characteristics, which had been reserved at Bayern. Hojbjerg wrapped up his stint there with an all-encompassing, man-of-the-match performance as Augsburg defeated Bayern 1-0.
On his return to Bayern next season, much will be expected of Hojbjerg, now an established international with Denmark. How much of a role he plays next season is incidental; it's his future in Bayern world post-Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm that will be crucial.
"I think I'm a new type of player. I can score goals, attacking is my strength. But I can also think defensively. It's simple: I'm Pierre," he said, aged 17, in his first interview as a Bayern player back in 2013.
If he can live up to those confident words over the next few months, Bayern could have a fine player on their hands for years to come. And, Germany will have a tough opponent when they face up against Denmark on Saturday night at the Eden Arena in Prague, too.