Thanks to Messi and Ronaldo, we live in an era where statistics have been mutated to such an absurd degree that historic remarkable achievements have been denigrated. Last season Sergio Aguero scored more than twenty Premier League goals for the third time in five seasons. A hugely impressive feat, until it is set against Ronaldo’s record of scoring over thirty La Liga goals in six successive seasons. Does it detract from Aguero’s achievement? Of course not, but by comparison the Argentine’s feat appears mediocre.
In this series of articles, I will highlight the careers of players that have not been remembered in quite the glowing terms they should haven been. The first in this ‘Shine a light’ series is Swedish legend Henrik Larsson.
The Swede’s career was truly remarkable; from a youth spent as a scrawny pre-teen battling every day middle-class Swedish racism to lifting the Champions League – with more than a few highs and lows along the way.
Born in Helsingborg in 1971 to a Swedish mother and a Cape Verdean father, Larsson gradually made a promising career for himself in arguably Scandinavia’s toughest league. First at semi-pro Hogaborg, then at boyhood club, Helsingborg FC, the dreadlocked striker carved out a reputation as one of the finest prospects in his country. In his first two seasons in professional football, Larsson notched an amazing 50 goals in 56 games helping his side gain promotion to the top flight in the process.
Such a record was always going to attract interest from some of Europe’s more illustrious names. After a brief flirtation with Grasshoppers of Zurich, Larsson opted for Dutch giants Feyenoord and their wild haired manager Wim Jansen. To say his time in Holland was mixed would be putting it mildly; in the positive aspects column rests a record of two KVBN Cup successes and the exposure needed to get a place in his nation’s 1994 World Cup squad, where the Blågult came a credible third. In the opposing column sits almost everything else; a modest scoring record (26 goals in 101 games), a revolving door of managers that never allowed the Swede to settle in a fixed position and a general dislike of life at the club that saw an ugly court trial determine his right to seek new pastures.
He finally found greener pastures (literally) at Celtic and a reunion with Jansen, in a deal worth an approximate £650,000. It was not seen as a signing that could break the stranglehold that Glasgow Rangers enjoyed, with ex-Blue’s player Derek Johnstone making what now looks like the most boneheaded statement in history, uttering ”You only get monkeys when you spend peanuts”.
Off the top of my head I honestly cannot think of a better deal in the history of the sport. In seven seasons at Parkhead the Swedish sensation notched an astounding 242 goals in 313 games. From the very beginning the fans adored him, Larsson provided the goals required to halt famous rivals Rangers domination of the title and in doing so made a bond that was impossible to shatter. In his time at the club Celtic metamorphosed from perennial underachievers to the dominant force in Scotland. With Larsson spearheading the side Celtic won four league titles, 2 Scottish Cups, 2 League Cups and made the historic trip to Seville to take part in the Uefa Cup Final – the club’s first continental final for 23 years. Throw in a European Golden Boot in the 01-02 season where Larsson scored an astounding 35 league goals in just 38 games and you have the completed blueprint to success.
It is impossible to put into words just how good Larsson was in his time at Celtic Park. At his very best he was like a combination of Superman and your Dad, you just knew that with Henrik on the park, wearing your colours, that things were going to be okay. Even against some of the giants of world football you always felt that if Celtic could carve out even a single chance then there was a huge possibility that Henrik would stick it away. His performances in Celtic’s run to the Uefa Cup Final demonstrate just how accomplished Larsson was. He scored against Blackburn, Liverpool, Celta Vigo, Boavista and two in the final against eventual winners Porto. The only round of the entire tournament in which the Swede failed to score was the round of 16 against Stuttgart, where he was absent due to a broken jaw. The final epitomised exactly what made Larsson such an astounding player; hard-working, intelligent, strong, brave, composed and in possession of a flea’s leaping ability that allowed him to rise above much taller defenders and score two powerful headers. Porto’s Brazilian goal grabber Derelei won the Man of the Match award but if you ever get the chance to see the game then you will see that Larsson was robbed. Not that the praise lavished on him made much of an impact on the man who said “I don’t see anything positive about my performance in the final. Scoring two goals in a final doesn’t mean anything if you lose. All I wanted was for Celtic to win the cup”.
His demonstrations in Europe (where he scored 35 goals in 56 games in both the Uefa Cup and the Champions League) highlighted that he was more than just the biggest fish in a small pond. There was always the aura given off by the English media, that he was a flat track bully, a player capable of plundering goals in the SPL but would struggle to cut it in the upper echelons of England’s Premiership. Time and time again Larsson proved this to be a fallacy.
His best moment in a Celtic jersey surely came on the 28th of August 2001 in the 6-2, Old Firm classic victory inside Celtic Park. The Glasgow Derby is perhaps the most pressurised event in football, an environment in which even the most talented players have been known to crumble. Keeping that in mind makes Larsson’s act in this game all the more impressive. Picking up a loose ball Larsson drove at the heart of the Rangers defence nut-megging Bert Konterman en-route. Faced with the goalkeeper Stefan Klos, another criminally underrated player, Larsson had a menagerie of options; go around, attempt a slot finish, a powerful drive. The King of Kings, as he was known to his hordes of adoring fans, attempted the audacious and chipped Klos with a level of nonchalance that belied the gravity of the situation. The ball of course floated beautifully into the net, Larsson wheeled away, arms outstretched, tongue exposed to the world in his trademark fashion. Whatever else he went on to achieve, in football as well as life, that moment solidified his reputation as a living legend – in one half of Glasgow anyway.
His consistently breathtaking displays earned him a move to Spanish giants Barcelona. Although fans were distraught to lose their talisman, the greatest player to don the famous hoops for over three centuries, they appreciated the service given and wished Larsson all the luck in the world in his pursuit to achieve more trophies and the acclaim his talents undoubtedly deserved. Integration to life in Catalonia was always going to be difficult. The increase in standard of football, the changes in culture, language, climate and playing style, as well as the competition for places made acclimatisation challenging. Though he was slow to adapt, he was missed greatly when he suffered a snap to his anterior cruciate ligament (the second career threatening injury after a horrific leg break in 1999 in Celtic’s Uefa Cup loss to Lyon) so much so he was offered a one-year extension to his rolling contract.
During his absence, he studied not only his fellow players but also aspects of his own game. In Glasgow he was the conduit for almost the entirety of Celtic’s play, but inside the Nou Camp he was more of a supplementary character. Ronaldinho, Messi, Guily, Deco, Iniesta and Xavi all operated at a standard a style that, at times, befuddled Larsson, yet upon his return he was a player revolutionised. Still not a starting player, but one that made an impact on every game he played be it as a starter or a substitute. The best example of this came in the 2006 Champions League Final against Arsenal. On the bench from the start Larsson studied the game, analysed the spaces on the field and deciphered the best way to exploit such gaps. On the hour mark he replaced everyone’s favourite pantomime villain, Mark van Bommel. Trailing the Thierry Henry inspired Gunners and with seemingly every avenue to goal blocked off, Larsson proved to be the difference. In the 76th minute he dropped to the right and set up Samuel Eto’o to equalise, then just four minutes later he ghosted to the opposite side of the penalty area and slotted an inch perfect pass into Juliano Belletti’s path to score the winning goal. Barcelona won their second European Cup and Larsson earned the plaudits. The best tribute coming from the vanquished rival Thierry Henry who said “People always talk about Ronaldinho, and everything but I didn’t see him today – I saw Henrik Larsson. Two times he came on – he changed the game, that is what killed the game – sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto’o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight“.
That was to be Larsson’s last game for Barcelona before returning to his homeland to play for his former side Helsingborg, despite the Catalans giant’s protestations. Ronaldinho’s statement demonstrates just how integral Larsson was to the victories Barcelona enjoyed, saying “When he came to Barcelona, Henrik said nice things about me but by the time he left he was my idol. In fact, he was my idol even before that. I remember him playing for Sweden in the 1994 World Cup. Henrik taught me a lot about football and I learned even more from him as a person. I was disappointed that he left for Sweden because I would have loved to have played with him for longer“. When the bucktoothed, Brazilian genius made those statements he was World Player of the Year.
From there Larsson returned to his native Sweden to wind-down his final few years in relative comfort playing for his former club Helsingborg. You would assume that would be the last we would hear from a 35-year-old, who had already suffered two career threatening injuries, yet his tale had yet another twist. After winning the Swedish cup and guiding his side to a laudable third, Larsson made the journey to play for Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. His time in England is best summed by his legendary gaffer; “On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones. For a man of 35, his receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing. At every session he was rapt. He wanted to listen to Carlos Queiroz, the tactics lectures, he was into every nuance of what we did. In training he was superb, his movement, his positional play. His three goals for us was no measure of his contribution”.
Sir Alex Ferguson would later go on to say, “In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough we were winning 2-1 and Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off. On his return to the dressing room, all the players stood up and applauded him and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months. Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job yet Henrik retained that aura.” Larsson left with an honorary Premier League medal and an enhanced reputation worthy for a man and player of his calibre.
His career was one of a few extraordinary highs and a few plummeting lows, one that stands up to even the most scrutinous of eyes. Nobody is suggesting that he should be mentioned in the same breath as the Zidane’s, (Original) Ronaldo’s or Figo’s of the world but it is clear that Larsson belongs to the tier of players directly below the game’s elite – a position that I feel is not allocated to the Swede anywhere near frequently enough. Zlatan Ibrahimović is held up as the greatest player to ever call Sweden home, but for me that title rests on the shoulders of the King of Kings – Henrik Larsson.