Article 53 — Henrik Larsson
I remember Henrik Larsson from my first World Cup in USA 94 more for his dreadlocks than his performances. At that time, he was a young reserve to the likes of Martin Dahlin, Tomas Brolin and Kennet Andersson. The latter 3 established stars of Swedish football had inspired Sweden to a 3rd place finish at USA 94.
Post-USA 94, I knew he was going great guns in the Dutch Eredivisie with Feyenoord. The Dutch league provided a good platform for foreign strikers with the example of Romario at PSV Eindhoven from 1988–1993 and his fellow Brazilian, Ronaldo at the same club from 1994–96. Larsson was in Holland at the same time as Ronaldo. Ronaldo left in 1996 to join Spanish giants, Barcelona while Larsson left a year later to join Scottish giants, Celtic.
Now when we look back, the Scottish league isn’t one of the best leagues in Europe. Every season, looking in from the outside, you know that there are only two possible teams that can win the league every season, Celtic or their bitter rivals and neighbours, Glasgow Rangers.
It was in Celtic that Larsson really exploded and brought his game up to the next level. He helped Celtic break Rangers’ stranglehold on the Scottish league title. Rangers had won 9 league titles in a row until Celtic won it in Larsson’s debut season in 1997–98. Larsson went on to win the league 3 more times, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup twice each. He won the European Golden Shoe in 2000–01 for scoring 53 goals in a season and guided Celtic to the UEFA Cup final in 2002–03. Celtic lost the final to Jose Mourinho’s Porto that season.
In the 1999–00 season, Larsson suffered a horrific leg break in two places as well. It threatened to end his career prematurely but thankfully it was not as serious as it was thought to be. Overall, from his time at Celtic, Larsson won many individual honours as well. He was twice named Swedish Footballer of the Year, won the Scottish Premier League Golden Boot 5 times and SFWA Footballer of the Year and SPFA Players’ Player of the Year twice. In 2003, he was named Greatest Swedish Footballer of the last 50 Years by UEFA to celebrate UEFA’s Jubilee Year.
On the international stage, Sweden failed to qualify for Euro 96 and France 98. They did qualify for Euro 2000 but were knocked out at the group stage. Sweden impressively got out of the Group of Death alongside England, eliminating Argentina and Nigeria at the World Cup in 2002 but were knocked out in the 2nd Round by Senegal. At Euro 2004, once again Sweden knocked out another big team in Italy from the group stage. They were however eliminated in the quarter-final by Holland. His exploits at Euro 2004 meant that he was selected as part of UEFA’s Team of the Tournament and his goal against Bulgaria won him the Goal of the Tournament.
At the age of 32, Larsson signed on a year’s contract for FC Barcelona, his first move to a major European league and a big European club. It intrigued me to see the impact he would make playing for a big European club in a big European league with the weight of the expectations on your shoulder. To his credit, he held his own. He showed his class and quality in Spain despite facing some initial difficulties in his first season, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee in his first season there.
He played only 2 seasons for Barcelona but won 2 La Liga titles, 1 Supercopa de Espana and 1 Champions League title before returning to retire in his native Sweden for his first club, Helsingborg IF. In his time in Barcelona, he had illustrious names such as Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o as company upfront. Barcelona also had the younger and highly rated Frenchman, Ludovic Giuly in the attack alongside him.
He played at one more international tournament for Sweden, the 2006 World Cup in Germany where they were eliminated in the 2nd Round. He finally retired from international football in 2009 after attempts earlier in his career to retire but never really sticking to it as he was coaxed back from international retirement by his national team managers and the Swedish Federation.
Larsson had a short 3-month loan stint at Manchester United in 2007 at the ripe old age of 35 years old. Sir Alex Ferguson was a fan of the Swede and there was an attempt to sign him when he was at the peak of his powers in Celtic. Larsson rejected the move as he was happy and settled in Scotland. He joined United at a time when the club was looking to win their first Premier League title in 3 seasons. He made a big impact in that short spell and it was the first time I could watch him in action closely.
I remember he came to United and settled in straight away as if he has always been playing for us, showing the powers of his adaptability, class and quality. He offered something different in our attack to the youthful talents of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Louis Saha was injury-riddled at that time so he came at the right time to add depth in that department. He scored 3 goals in 13 appearances and there were attempts to elongate his stay at United. The attempts failed because Larsson, a man of his words didn’t want to go against the promise of returning for Helsingborg and of returning to his family.
As a United fan, we can only imagine what an impact he would have made at United had he arrived sooner when he was younger and had more years left in his tank. He helped United in their quest to win the Premier League, progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League and the final of the FA Cup.
Larsson retired from professional football 2 years later in 2009 at Helsingborg. Henrik Larsson will go down as one of the most under-rated players ever. Probably his impact and contribution as a player would have been amplified if he played for a bigger club than Celtic in his prime and/or he played for a bigger national team.
As a player, he was known for scoring goals but he wasn’t just a typical goal poacher. He got involved in the play outside the box and had a high work-rate. He was a thorough professional, overcame 2 major injuries in his career to have a long career until he was 38 years old. He surpassed the achievements of the heroes of 1994, namely Brolin and Dahlin. He inspired a future generation of Swedish stars, Freddie Ljungberg and the biggest of all, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.