From Morocco to the south coast: Saints' Norwegian international explains his unique football upbringing
You hear it all the time from footballers. “It’s my dream to play in the Premier League,” they say.
That’s not to say it’s not true, of course. It was, and maybe still is, a dream of ours, too. But there comes a point when the statement carries less meaning, having heard it so many times before.
It’s refreshing, then, to speak to Mohamed Elyounoussi, who grew up in a foreign country where English football is revered, but only a select number of players have flourished on these shores. It ticks all the boxes for the “dream” line.
But for Elyounoussi, it wasn’t.
Born in Morocco, the Norwegian forward moved to Europe aged two and was playing senior football at 15.
All the evidence suggests he must have been infatuated with football from birth, but instead his relationship with the game was unusually distant – initially at least.
“At home, we didn’t really watch football,” he reveals.
“We watched the Euros and the World Cup, but my family were not really into football.
“My friends all had this huge dream to play in the Premier League. I didn’t have that because I didn’t really watch it – I didn’t even think about it at the time, it was just something far away.
“I didn’t get to watch any leagues unless I was at a friend’s house. They would watch the Premier League a lot, Man United especially, which is how I got to know Cristiano Ronaldo and Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
“Otherwise I was outside playing.”
Maybe that’s what served him so well. Rather than sitting inside watching football all day or playing FIFA, “Moi” was out learning how to play the game.
He says he owes that to cousin Tarik, six years his senior, who was the first member of the Elyounoussi family to fall in love with the game.
“It’s really weird,” he giggles. “Neither my father nor my uncle played football, it was all about education, getting a job and working hard.
“My cousin started playing and then I joined a small club with my friends just for fun.
“He started to develop himself to become a better player, playing in the Norwegian league.
“When he got his first contract, it was like ‘oh, there is money in football as well. It’s actually a job and it’s healthy’.
“That’s when we started to get into football. We started knowing who the teams were – I still didn’t have a clue who Rosenborg were, but Tarik started to play against them, and that’s how me and my family started to know about the Norwegian league.
“The interest in football started with him.”
It’s amazing to think a teenage Elyounoussi had not heard of Rosenborg – by far the most successful club in Norway, who have amassed 25 league titles, the vast majority since Moi was born in 1994.
There’s something endearing about his blissful ignorance to the football world, added to his naturally smiley and welcoming demeanour.
He hasn’t lived in a bubble all his life. Now that he is, for want of a better phrase, living the dream, he loves it.
He may not have known much about those who played it professionally, but Elyounoussi was quickly on his way to joining them.
Playing top-flight football at the age of 16, a year earlier he had already made his debut in the Norwegian cup for Sarpsborg – the small city that housed Moi, his parents and his three younger siblings.
“I remember it very well,” he says, recounting his very first league appearance. “I was really nervous in the warm-up and didn’t think I was going to be coming on.
“We were 1-0 down with about ten minutes left. I wish I could say I came on and scored and we won the game, but it wasn’t like that!
“It’s a small club and it was our first time in the Premier League in Norway, so I came on for the last ten minutes and I was really nervous.
“I remember getting the ball in a one v one, going past a player and putting in a cross.
“I was nervous, but I still played my way. It was a special moment.
“I was back to school the day after! My friends and the teacher gave me congratulations, so it was cool.”
Far from just going through the motions on his return to the classroom, Elyounoussi had a reality check.
“I actually had a history test that day,” he grins again, this time ruefully.
“I had my books on the bus, so the day before when we travelled I was reading, but after the game I was on the phone to my friends and family, so I completely forgot about the test!
“The day after when I came into school, I found out there was a test… I didn’t fail, but it wasn’t great.”
A good indicator of Elyounoussi’s character is how grounded he is. When he wasn’t studying for history exams, he was spending time after matches working in his father’s pizza restaurant.
“Unfortunately, he doesn’t do it anymore, but he did it for 30 years.” Eventually Moi told him to retire when his football career began to bring in good money.
“I used to work there a lot. Even after playing some games for Sarpsborg, I would go and help him out.
“I would serve some customers who came straight from the game to the restaurant. They’d be asking ‘what are you doing here?’ so it was quite funny.
“I met pizza before I met football! It was nice. My mum’s food is the best and she always cooked dinner at home. It was only if we were in a rush and she couldn’t cook that we would eat my father’s pizza.”
mohamed elyounoussithe day after when i came to school, i found out there was a test... i didn't fail, but it wasn't great!
Is he still a big pizza fan?
“Not really,” he shakes his head. “When you grow up with it, you get tired of it and they just don’t taste the same as the ones my father made. I’ve always been loyal to him.”
Never one to stand still, whether on the pitch or in the kitchen, Elyounoussi wanted a new challenge.
“I would always think a lot about what should be my next move,” he explains.
“In Sarpsborg I was comfortable. My mother was cooking, washing my stuff and I was playing every game. Even if I played a bad game, I would start the next one.
“But I wanted something new and I wanted to get better, so I went to Molde.
“It was not a big gap – playing in the same league, just a better team with much higher quality of players.
“For me, it was much more competitive to fight for a place in the team.
“Molde was a team fighting for the title, so I went there to win something, and I did. We also played in the Europa League.”
Signing for Molde would later bring the attraction of playing under Solskjær – a Norwegian goalscoring hero Elyounoussi had eventually grown to recognise, and a man he credits for making him more clinical.
“He is really famous in Norway,” he says. “I remember watching him on television, and I knew he was really good in front of goal.
“It was good and I learned a lot from him. At Sarpsborg, my best season was maybe six goals, but in my first year at Molde I scored 17.
“I was much more determined in front of goal and I became more forward thinking.
“At Sarpsborg I was more of a creative player, but in Molde I developed the way of finishing in front of goal. He was very helpful with that.”
Having won the league and cup double and broken into the national team (he turned down Morocco after they sacked the coach who had shown an interest in calling him up), Elyounoussi had done all he could in his homeland.
“Going to Basel, I knew it was a strong team in Switzerland who were used to winning titles,” he recalls, knowing it was the right move at the right time in his progression.
“They were often in the Champions League, so that was the next step – from Europa League to Champions League.
“It was a different country, a new language, new players… everything was different, but I settled down quite quickly from the start.
“We had a small Scandinavian group there – Swedish, Danish and Icelandic players – so it was quite easy.”
For the first time in his career, Elyounoussi had to be patient. When his chance came, he had to take it.
“It’s hard to play for a team who is used to winning,” he said. “It’s hard to get in, because they win every game, but in my very first start I had a goal and an assist.
“Then they gave me a chance when they sold a winger – Bjarnason, to Aston Villa.
“He was good and he had done well with Iceland in the Euros. He was playing every game and I was sub, but then he was sold and I got a chance to prove myself.
“After that, I came in and I scored a hat-trick! From there, I started to play every game and did quite well.
“We won the double in my first year and also played in the Champions League, but we were not successful. We came last in our group.
“A year later, we went through from the group stage, so the two seasons in Basel were really amazing and really interesting.”
It was further evidence of Elyounoussi’s ability to embrace every challenge and take his game to new heights, but it was not until he played in Manchester that his mind was made up to try to conquer England.
“I remember Brian Deane told me many times ‘you’re ready for the Premier League’.” Yes, that is the Brian Deane, scorer of the Premier League’s first-ever goal back in 1992, who was Elyounoussi’s manager at Sarpsborg.
“When he came to us I didn’t know anything about him, but he’s such a great guy and a great coach.
“I’m still in touch with him – he’s like my mentor, and I talked to him before I came to Southampton.
“He told me I was ready many times, but it was last season when I played against United and City, and had good games against both of them, that I realised I was ready.
“Before that, in the Champions League, we (Basel) had Arsenal and PSG. It was tough, and I wasn’t ready then.
“But I felt something in me that told me I was ready – especially after the games against Man City (Elyounoussi scored as Basel came from behind to win at the Etihad).
“When you play well against these teams, you know you have that level in you. Playing in huge stadiums like Old Trafford and the Etihad, you want it every week.
“I knew after last season I was ready for the next step, which was the Premier League.”
It’s still intriguing that Elyounoussi’s carefully-planned journey to the top was so far from his thoughts for so long.
You wonder if his unique upbringing away from football’s mass exposure actually made him the free-spirited player we see today.
“It’s a really deep question,” he ponders. “After a while, I would watch football and search on YouTube for skills that I would try myself in training, but that came later.
“I just had that inner energy and passion for football. It didn’t come from watching on TV, it came from going outside and playing with my friends.
“I wasn’t doing things I’d been told by a coach or that I’d seen from another player. It was just because I saw the ball and did what came naturally.
“I just went out and played. What I did on the pitch – and what I still do – is just natural.”
mohamed elyounoussii just had that inner energy and passion for football. it didn't come from watching on tv, it came from going outside and playing with my friends.
Elyounoussi’s record suggests it’s working. He had racked up 80 goals by the age of 23 for Sarpsborg, Molde and Basel, without ever playing as an orthodox striker, and is determined to open his Saints account sooner rather than later.
Having missed the recent trip to Anfield through injury, Elyounoussi is desperate to be involved against another traditional English powerhouse in Chelsea this afternoon.
But what about his family? Will they be watching?
“Nowadays even my mother knows the names of all the players and all the teams,” he laughs. “Before she had no clue!
“It’s funny how it turned out, because she had no interest in football. She didn’t know anyone – you could ask her who Ronaldo was and she wouldn’t even know – but now she knows them all.
“After games, she calls me and gives me advice – what I should’ve done and what I shouldn’t.
“Now we are a real football family.”