Köln - Having emigrated from Morocco to Norway at the age of 11, new beginnings are almost commonplace for 1899 Hoffenheim’s Tarik Elyounoussi.
A source of perpetual motion on the pitch, it seems the now 26-year-old’s style of play also reflects on his personal life. However, Elyounoussi presents himself as a mature and grounded individual, who is happy to reflect on the lessons life has taught him so far.
Talking exclusively to bundesliga.com, the Al Hoceima-native discusses the important role football played in his upbringing, scoring his first Bundesliga goal and the targets he has set himself in 2014/15.
bundesliga.com: Tarik Elyounoussi, you’re a versatile forward comfortable with the ball at either foot, but which is you strongest?
Tarik Elyounoussi:Niklas Süle just asked me that after training (laughs). I’m naturally right-footed. As an 11-year-old I could barely kick a ball with my left foot. I spent everyday kicking the ball against a wall with my left foot until I could play as well with my left as I could with my right. Now my left foot is part of the way I play. It doesn’t matter whether the ball is played to my right or left.
bundesliga.com: Your preferred position is as a striker, but at Hoffenheim you operate mostly on the left wing…
Elyounoussi: Yes, I’m a striker, but I prefer playing in the hole behind a big target man. I never stand still and am constantly moving. It makes it difficult for the opposing defenders to maintain a complete overview if the forwards are always on the move. At Hoffenheim I don’t play exclusively on the left and I’m comfortable drifting into the middle. I’m not just a winger. So for me it’s almost exactly the same, whether I’m operating behind a lone striker as part of a three-man frontline or as a second striker.
bundesliga.com: After 22 games without a goal, you must have been very relieved opening your Bundesliga account for Hoffenheim in the Matchday 1 win over FC Augsburg?
Elyounoussi: I waited a long time to score that goal. Even though the head coach [Markus Gisdol] kept telling me to be patient and continue working hard because what I was doing was important for the team, last season was difficult because I hadn’t found the net. As an attacking player you always want to score or at least set up goals.
bundesliga.com: Why did it take so long for you to register on the scoresheet?
Elyounoussi: I was a bit too defensively-orientated at first. I was new and I didn’t know exactly what was expected of me. At first I wanted to play without risk and be secure in possession. When we’d win the ball I was often sitting too deep, but that’s changed now. Furthermore, I’m now physically and mentally fit. I was a little tired, especially towards the tail end of last season. I arrived from Norway on the back of a long pre-season, but this summer I spent time holidaying in Morocco, Greece and Norway. I’m now fit and fresh in body and mind.
bundesliga.com: How did the head coach help you when things weren’t running smoothly?
Elyounoussi: He never put pressure on me by suggesting that I had to start scoring. Markus Gisdol is very clever in maintaining an overview of the entire squad. He knows exactly how to handle a player whether he’s in form or not. He always said that I was doing a good job for the team and wanted to build my self-confidence. I was also a little bit upset because my team-mates were scoring so often while I wasn’t. But the head coach always maintained that I should keep playing the way I was playing. I want to repay the faith he showed in me this season.
bundesliga.com: How great a transition was it moving from the Norwegian top flight to the Bundesliga?
Elyounoussi: Of course it wasn’t easy. The Bundesliga is a big step up. It’s a much more competitive league and there are no easy games. Unlike in Norway where the top teams will win comfortably against the smaller sides, here you’ve got to push yourself to the limit in every game. Fortunately I was able to collect invaluable experience with the national team, which helped me somewhat.
bundesliga.com: You moved to Norway from Morocco as an 11-year-old. What was that like?
Elyounoussi: My father had been working in Norway since the late 1960’s. We only saw him two or three times a year. At some point my father got tired of being on his own and my mother, three sisters, my brother and I all moved to Norway. That was when I began playing football for a local club.
bundesliga.com: Did you not play for a club in Morocco as a child?
Elyounoussi: No, we just played out on the street. In Norway football became the key to my integration.
bundesliga.com: How come?
Elyounoussi: I could only speak Arabic and French, but all of sudden had to learn Norwegian and English. That was difficult at the beginning. When I first heard Norwegian I thought ‘you’ll never learn that’. I missed everything about Morocco, my friends and everything else. Everything was more simple when it came to football, in part due to my team-mates noticing that I wasn’t that bad. Everyone wanted me to be on their team.
bundesliga.com: You could have played for the Morocco national team. Why did you opt to represent Norway?
Elyounoussi: Having featured at every youth level, I felt that the Norwegian national team had helped me develop. I never had a favourite team back in Morocco. While I was playing for SC Heerenveen, members of the Moroccan Football Association contacted me, but by that point I had already played a few friendly matches for Norway and knew the coach and players. I knew no one involved with football in Morocco. It made it easier to decide to represent Norway, the country to whom I owed so much.
bundesliga.com: Have the experiences learned during your first, somewhat unsuccessful foray into foreign football with SC Heerenveen helped you at all at Hoffenheim?
Elyounoussi: Yes, absolutely. You learn a lot when you move to a foreign country alone. I was 19 and suddenly all on my own in a city a long way away from my family. You start thinking back when you’re sitting in an apartment on your own. Things didn’t come together for me in a sporting sense in Holland, but I learnt a lot off the pitch. Therefore it was a good and bad experience in equal measure.
bundesliga.com: What are your aims this season, both on a personal level and in terms of the team?
Elyounoussi: We had a great season last year and were able to surprise a fair few teams. I love the way we play. It’s always about getting forward and setting ourselves up to be offensive. If we manage to continue creating the same number of chances whilst conceding fewer goals then that would be an important development. We’ve definitely got a very good team.
bundesliga.com: Following the summer arrivals there’s now more competition for places, including in your position.
Elyounoussi: Yes, that’s right. You’ve always got to produce your best performance. The tension is always high in every training session and every match. The quality within the squad has been raised again. That’s great, but we’ve always got a very funny group and I’m really happy to be here.
Interview by Tobias Schächter