Henrik Larsson: The cult hero of Stretford End

Manchester United fans are currently going gaga over Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After 25 games of his Manchester United career, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 16 goals, which is not bad going for a 35-year-old free-if-you-don’t-count-wages transfer. In fact, it’s not bad going by any standards. Before, the rise of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the famous red of Manchester, there was a subtle and soft spoken Swede who was a fan favourite.

In an era where Alan Shearer’s one-armed sprint was often as exciting as it got in the British club game at the time, despite the influx of innovative celebrations in the 1990s with Roger Milla’s dancing at the 1990 World Cup and Bebeto’s baby cradle at the 1994 World Cup, Larsson’s inverted aeroplane, complete with loosened tongue, evoked Māori-like connotations yet reminded us all of the ecstasy of goal scoring. For Larsson though, it was his way of answering all those cynics who criticised him for ‘only’ scoring goals in the SPL, for never having the ambition to leave Celtic Park and for only being a bit-part player in Barcelona’s 2006 La Liga and Champions League triumphs. To answer those ‘shortcomings’, it is important to realise that the Swede was of a rare breed in modern football: a loyal club servant, who had the talent and goal scoring pedigree to match.

Mother’s maiden Name

Larsson was born to Francisco Rocha, a sailor from the Cape Verde, and Eva Larsson, a factory worker who met Francisco when his boat docked in Helsingborg, in north-west Scania in 1971. While his parents never married and split up when Larsson was 12 years of age, they decided that Henrik should take his mother’s maiden name to help him assimilate into a Caucasian-dominated city and nation. However, despite his blonde hair and distinctly Swedish second name, Larsson’s curls stood out among his class mates and he could not escape occasional racist abuse. It resulted in Larsson getting into many scraps at school but his love of football, where he would train three days a week with local Third Division side Högaborgs from the age of 12, served as a welcome distraction from the pain of his parents splitting up.

The rejection from Sven-Göran Eriksson

Despite his obvious talent, Larsson, at 13, did not have a growth spurt until late into his teenage years and from this, he often found himself being left on the bench at Högaborgs by coach Bent Person. However, this motivated Larsson and at 17, he was promoted to the senior team. Despite his encouraging rise, solid performances yielded no offers from scouts and Larsson began to wonder if his dream of becoming a professional footballer, that he had mused about in so many of his English essays at school, would ever come true. Working as a fruit-packer once he finished school at 18, and with so many players of his age already playing top-level football in Sweden, Larsson began to give up on turning pro and realised that “football wasn’t everything.” The Swede carried on with his part-time semi-professional career at Högaborgs, scoring 23 goals in 74 games in his four-year spell with the senior team, and met his future wife, Magdalena, when he was 19.

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With the Swedish connection of manager Sven-Göran Eriksson and striker Mats Magnusson, one of Larsson’s heroes who was also from Helsingborg, at Benfica, Larsson was offered a trial. While Eriksson decided against offering the Swede a contract, having just signed João Pinto, the veteran Mats Magnusson returned to play for Helsingborg in 1992 and influenced the Superettan (Second Division) side’s decision to sign Larsson. At 21, the Swede was handed a three-year full-time contract of £75 per week. Larsson, while not particularly prolific with Högaborgs, excelled in the Superettan with his 34 goals helping Helsingborg to promotion to the Allsvenskan (First Division) in just his first season. His change in goalscoring form may have been down to better training facilities and coaching, training every day, forming a brilliant partnership with Magnusson or simply because Larsson realised that the Superettan was the platform, unlike the sparsely followed Third Division, to impress and dazzle the Swedish public and potential scouts.

The 22 year old’s potent form continued in the Allsvenskan, where he netted 16 goals in 25 games, helping Helsingborg to a respectable ninth (out of fourteen teams) finish and alerted the likes of Grasshopper, managed by Christian Gross, and Feyenoord, managed by Wim Jansen, to his signature. Having decided to wait for the Swedish season to end in the autumn to help Helsingborg stay up, and having chosen Feyenoord as his preferred destination, Larsson left Helsingborg for the Rotterdam giants for £295,000 in November 1993, with 50% of the transfer fee going to Larsson’s first club, Högaborg. Adapting to a foreign country, learning a new language and without his family, until his girlfriend Magdalena joined him a year later, Larsson initially found the Eredivisie a major step up – scoring a modest 6 goals in 27 games.

Hallå Celtic park

Tired of being rotated and being played in unfamiliar positions, and exasperated with the media criticism for his lack of goals (42 in 149 appearances), Larsson decided that he wanted to leave the 1996 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finalists. With a release clause in his contract that stated he could move for £650,000, Larsson told Hahn he wanted to leave in 1997 – leading to a bitter court wrangling between Feyenoord and Larsson in proving the clause’s merits. In the meantime, Larsson met with Helsingborg officials but fearful of being branded a failure for returning home, he decided to hold out for another offer. Fate was clearly on Larsson’s side, with Wim Jansen being appointed manager of Celtic in July 1997. From this, Jansen took the Swede to Celtic Park – the defining moment of Larsson’s career.

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Tommy Burns was sacked as manager and, following him out of the door were the ‘three amigos’ – Paolo Di Canio, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete. This talented but temperamental trio had served up much entertainment in the 1996-97 season but they had ultimately been unsuccessful. Larsson would provide a refreshing contrast of talent and complete professionalism without ego.

Brought on in the 59′ against Hibernian at Easter Road, with the score at 1-1, Larsson inadvertently set-up Hibs’s veteran midfielder Chic Charnley – who powered a 25 yard strike past Gordon Marshall to win Hibs the match. However, that was merely a freak occurrence as three weeks later in the UEFA Cup Third Round second-leg qualifier at home to Austrian side Wacker Innsbruck, with Celtic 2-1 down on aggregate, Larsson set-up four goals in Celtic’s 6-3 win – which more than compensated for his 45th minute own goal.

The greatest Cameo

 

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The greatest cameo of his career duly occurred in the biggest match of his career: the 2006 Champions League Final against Arsenal in the famous Barcelona shirt. With ten-man Arsenal 1-0 up thanks to Sol Campbell’s header on 37’, Larsson came on for Mark van Bommel on 61’ and rather than being the finisher who scored two goals, as he had been for so much of his career, the 35 year old Larsson instead provided the cutting edge – setting up Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti on 76’ and 81’ respectively. The Swede’s deft lay off for Eto’o allowed the Cameroonian to brilliantly break the offside trap, while Larsson’s one-two pullback for Belletti showcased Larsson’s often underrated vision. Larsson was lauded, with the then Arsenal forward Thierry Henry summing it up after the match:

People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Giuly and everything, but I didn’t see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. 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.

Ronaldinho was also quick to pay tribute, saying: “He’s not merely a player. He’s a legend, a hero and my idol.” The Brazilian magician, officially the world’s best player from 2004-2006, was the first to admit that he knew little of the prolific Larsson before the Swede joined Barcelona in the summer of 2004 but in just two seasons at the Camp Nou, the then 36 year old Larsson was hailed in his own exclusive pantheon, ahead of the likes of Garrincha, Pelé, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Sócrates, Zico, Romário, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, by Ronaldinho. With Larsson’s contract due to expire in June, Barcelona President Joan Laporta offered the Swede another year-long extension but Larsson politely turned it down in favour of finishing his career at hometown club Helsingborg.

Manchester United Welcome Henrik Larsson

With the Allsvenskan’s off-season occurring between the end of November and the beginning of March, there was a window for a loan move for Larsson. With Sir Alex Ferguson a long-time admirer, who once compared Larsson to Eric Cantona, and with United having a shortage of strikers, with Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjær suffering a series of niggles, the timing of Larsson’s arrival was welcomed.

Larsson’s spell of 3 goals in 13 games is fondly remembered by United fans, with the Swede scoring on his debut in the 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round against Aston Villa, in the 4-0 Premier League rout over Watford and in the 2-0 win over Lille in the Champions League. Ferguson desperately wanted to retain the Swede but Larsson made a promise to Helsingborg and although he would later reveal that the biggest regret of his career was “not staying at United longer”, Larsson stayed true to his word. The English FA gave him and the injury-hit Alan Smith special dispensation for Premier League winner’s medals, as Larsson played 7 league games and Smith appeared in 9 league matches (both short of the Premier League’s quota of 10), after United finished six points clear of Chelsea with 89 points.

Finally, Larsson’s career at the very top of the club game was over. He continued to play for his country and appeared at Euro 2008 but by then Zlatan Ibrahimović had become Sweden’s key man.

As a remarkable career was reaching its end, Larsson was a player who had gained the respect of just about all who had come into contact with him. Strong, skilful, selfless and superb in the air for a man who stood at just 5’9’’, Larsson was the complete striker.

In the no-win environment of modern football, players are chastised for a lack of loyalty and also for a lack of ambition. Henrik Larsson was sometimes accused of the latter by showing his appreciation to Celtic, with whom he had resurrected a drifting career at the age of 25.

It took time for the King of Kings to become one of the best in the business but his move to Celtic was to prove the making of him. Eventually, he would become Europe’s top scorer, a league champion in three countries and a Champions League winner.

 

 

 

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