The Norway winger on human rights in Qatar, playing with Erling Haaland and his renaissance at Southampton
Mohamed Elyounoussi rewinds to the end of August, Southampton’s visit to Rodney Parade, home to Newport County, in the Carabao Cup. For the club, it turned into a historic night as they recorded their biggest away win, and although it was not the most glamorous setting or grandest occasion for Elyounoussi to make his first Southampton appearance in more than two years, he knew it was time to grasp his second chance.
“It was almost like now or never, really,” he says. “I went in at half-time, we were 3-0 up and I was thinking: ‘I haven’t scored yet.’ I thought: ‘I have another 45 minutes to really step up.’ I had an assist in the first half but it was not enough. I needed a goal, and maybe one goal was not enough either.”
Elyounoussi ended with a hat-trick in an 8-0 rout and the rest is history. He scored his first Premier League goal at Newcastle three days later and was central to Southampton’s first win of the season against Leeds last weekend. Elyounoussi believes an intra-squad pre-season game in which he scored one goal and set up another encouraged Ralph Hasenhüttl to laser in on his talent. The Southampton manager this week labelled the winger’s renaissance after two seasons on loan at Celtic as one of the season’s best stories. Not that Elyounoussi thinks he has cracked it. “It was nice to be able to show myself. It is still early on and I don’t feel like it’s been 10/10 at all – far from it. I should have scored in the last game.”
Elyounoussi is conversing – in impeccable English – before Southampton host Burnley on Saturday, a repeat of his debut match three years ago after a £16m move from Basel. He is generous with his time and candid, none more so than when we land on Norway taking a stand for human rights. In March, Elyounoussi and his teammates lined up for a World Cup qualifier against Gibraltar with T-shirts bearing the words “Human rights – On and off the pitch” and before recent qualifiers they have held banners in support of migrant workers. Germany and the Netherlands have also brought the subject into focus at matches.
In June, Norway’s football federation voted against boycotting Qatar 2022 but Elyounoussi says: “We’re still trying to light this up, that this is important. It might be in another part of the world but we’re here, we see this and we want attention around it.
“I think it is a great thing that we do. It was something we were talking about as a group of players and leaders. We have been talking to other organisations as well, who have been following this up, putting a bit of pressure on Fifa to have a look, to make a change. And there have been changes since this has had attention around it. We were the first ones to do it and we’re still doing it.”
Elyounoussi believes boycotting would send the wrong message. “I don’t think we would achieve anything by doing that. I think it would be better to send a message if we could get there and do it from there instead.” It is powerful to see high-profile footballers finding their voice on such topics. “Knowledge is the key here,” he says. “You cannot just go in and talk about that country if you have no knowledge about the country or how it works. Amnesty and all of the organisations that are following this up every day know more, have more stats, and more facts. I think it is good to listen to them. We have a voice and I think it is good that we can use it for the greater good. I think it is important not to [necessarily] talk loud about it but to have an opinion and to do things that are right, more than just: ‘Nah I don’t have an opinion’ and just hide away.”
Elyounoussi has the pleasure of playing for Norway with Erling Haaland, who last week shared a clip of himself stacking three balls before hitting the bullseye with each.
“I’m not sure if we should believe 100% that video,” Elyounoussi says, smiling. “The main thing is he is always hungry for goals. Every time I have the ball in front of the goal he screams next to me that he wants the ball even though I’m open and free! Hopefully, he can score more goals for us so we can go to the World Cup. It’s about time we go to the biggest tournaments. It’s been over 20 years [since Euro 2000].”
Elyounoussi is adamant the hard times have had a positive effect. The loans to Celtic helped him “get better at things I was not as comfortable with, maybe going in [for] 50-50s where you normally see a foul in another league and the opponent gets a yellow card but here the ref just looks at you like: ‘No, come on, get up.’”
Last season he played in the Champions League and scored in the Old Firm derby, albeit behind closed doors. “When you score in an empty stadium, it’s like scoring in a garden,” he says. “It is so quiet and you do not actually feel anything. That was my only regret. It was a shame I couldn’t feel it [the atmosphere]. We played in a [Scottish] Cup final against Rangers and it was electric. The pitch was shaking. It was something I never had before.”