I’ve got no reason to idolise Henrik Larsson, but I do.
I’m not Swedish, I don’t support Celtic or Barcelona, he was simply one of those players who demanded to be noticed as I fell helplessly in love with football at a young age.
For the thousands of other Larsson appreciators out there, indulge his incredible story for the next couple of minutes…
Francisco Rocha bought his son his first football when baby Henrik was just 16-months-old. Long before he was able to comprehend the world around him, Larsson was used to life was a ball at his feet.
Half-Cape Verdean, half-Swedish, he suffered racism during his school years but was able to cope by watching English football on television and videos of Pele. His parents separated when Larsson was 12-years-old and it was agreed that he should take his mother’s name to make it easier for him to be accepted in Sweden. Little did they know he’d be idolised by a whole generation of Swedish youngsters some years later.
At 18-year-old he was still just semi-pro and offset his career with Hogaborg with life as a fruit-packer.
His first season as a professional, he scored 34 goals in 31 league games for Helsingborg with ex-Benfica hero Mats Magnusson as his strike partner. That put a swift end to his fruit-packing career.
When Larsson bagged his 50th league goal for the club in just his 56th game, Feyenoord forked out £295,000 to bring him to the Eredivisie.
However, a combination of homesickness, frequent managerial changes, being played out of position, and the club’s rotation policy that meant even in-form players were hauled off after an hour, meant Larsson never properly settled in Holland. Two KNVB Cups gave him a taste of major honours though, and his appetite would prove to be insatiable.
In 1997 Larsson won a legal dispute that allowed him to leave Feyenoord if an offer of £600,000 or more was submitted. Celtic obliged and a legend was born.
Although some fans were worried their beloved Hoops had signed a flop when he passed the ball straight to Hibernian’s Chic Charnley with the first touch of his debut, directly leading to a goal and subsequent 2-1 loss. He then scored an own goal in his first European game for the club against Austrian side Tirol Innsbruck.
But by the end of the season he was a hero. 16 league goals, including a 20-yard piledriver on the final day of the season, ensured Celtic’s first league title since 1988 and stopped Rangers breaking their record for consecutive titles.
In 1999 Larsson suffered one of the most horrific leg breaks in football history. Away to Lyon in a UEFA Cup game, the long-locked finisher crumpled in a footrace with Serge Blanc. Replays showed his shin had snapped to a right angle after a tangle of legs.
Many fans thought he would never be able to reach top gear again after the injury. Some even thought he might have to retire. But as many defenders have learned over the years, underestimating Larsson is a symptom of chronic foolishness.
In his first full season back, Larsson scored 53 goals in 50 games. A superhuman effort in anyone’s book. He beat the rest of Europe’s top forwards to the Golden Shoe, following in the footsteps of Euesbio, Gerd Muller, Marco van Basten, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronaldo.
He spearheaded the Martin O’Neil era at Celtic Park and by the time he played his last game for the club in 2004, he had racked up an astonishing 242 goals in 313 games, making him the club’s third most prolific scorer of all time.
His passion for the green inhabitants of Glasgow was never in doubt. He names the 2003 UEFA Cup final defeat to Porto as the most painful moment of his career, mangled leg included. Fittingly he scored braces in both his final league game and last competitive game for Celtic, delivering the double as a parting gift to the fans who worshipped him like messiah.
An ACL rupture tarnished his first season at Barcelona. But 15 goals in 2005/06 helped the Catalan club to another title win and Champions League glory.
Some fans even refer to the 2006 Champions League final as ‘Larsson’s final’ as the Swedish forward came off the bench to provide both assists as Barcelona beat Arsenal 2-1 in Paris.
After the game, Thierry Henry said: “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.”
The game was Larsson’s last for Barcelona but his impact and influence stretched through every street in Catalonia. Speaking about Larsson’s departure, Ronaldinho said: “With Henrik leaving us this club is losing a great scorer, no question. But I am also losing a great friend. Henrik was my idol and now that I am playing next to him it is fantastic.”
If you don’t judge Henry and Ronaldinho’s opinion on what makes a great player then perhaps football isn’t for you.
He wound down his career back at Helsingborg although his relationship with the club turned sour in 2016 when the club were relegated with Larsson as manager. Angry fans stormed the pitch once relegation was confirmed and hooded hooligans stipped Larsson’s son, Jordan, of his playing shirt. Both father and son left the club after the incident.
In 2009 Larsson endured a terrible personal tragedy when his younger brother Robert was found dead in his flat. He was on international duty at the time and the news was kept from Larsson until after he had played in a World Cup qualifier against Denmark. When he was told after the game he was ‘distraught’ and had to be comforted by team-mates.
Speaking years later he said: “I would trade every title, every damn goal and every day of my career if my brother could be healthy among us.”
Larsson’s brother passed away after a long battle with alcohol and street drugs. Grief for his brother is what ultimately led to Larsson’s retirement in 2013 as he decided to devote more time to his family.
Larsson recently revealed his only regret was choosing not to accept Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer to extend his loan at Man United. The great Scottish manager recognised Larsson’s positive influence on the squad in addition to his fine on-field performances.
“I should have stayed as it would have meant I got a Premier League winners’ medal and I would have stayed for one more season,” he said. “But I still had a contract with Helsingborgs and I feel that when you sign a contract, you have to see it out.”
Larsson’s loyalty and honour, just like his finishing, is second to none.
Naturally a star for Sweden’s national team, he finally passed the torch to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2009 having scored 37 goals 106 caps for his country. He scored goals in five major international tournaments in an international career spanning 16 years.
A talented floorball player, he played at a good level before committing to football. In 2008 he picked up his stick again and returned with an appearance for Helsingaborg in the Swedish Super League. He followed this debut up with a man of the match performance in his second game. Isn’t that just so typical of Larsson?
No player has scored more goals in the history of the UEFA Cup/Europa League and for my money very few players have graced the pitch with as much class and grace.
All hail King Henrick!