– Dick Advocaat
A hero to people of many generations, notching up 242 goals for Celtic and continued longevity and winning the Champions League with Barcelona, A Different League looks back at Henrik Larsson – voted the greatest Swedish player of the last 50 years and the only player outside of Scotland who Celtic fans voted into their greatest ever XI.
Larsson came into British mainstream largely unknown to Scottish fans – he had spent a barren spell with Dutch giants Feyenoord. The only significant memories evoked were from USA 1994 where he helped the Swedish national team finish in third place. Larsson’s form did not pick up immediately when he joined Celtic in the 1997/98 season. A series of short-lived performances were finally overturned against Kilmarnock when a diving header set the path he would follow to a glittering career. The diving header that day showed considerable aerial ability for a player who was not considered a tall striker. Nostalgic video clips often display his aerial prowess as a primary attribute, something that helped the Hoops on many occasions to significant victories.
Larsson’s contributions gathered pace in November 1997 as he scored in the Scottish League Cup final against Dundee United. The energetic performances and fantastic work-rate resulted in his debut season culminating with a goal against St Johnstone on the last day helping Celtic win their first league title since the 1987/88 season, breaking Old Firm rivals Rangers’ stronghold on Scottish football. The green half of Glasgow celebrated knowing that an era of Celtic dominance loomed.
Larsson was sidelined for eight months in the 1999/00 season after a career-threatening injury against Lyon. The significance was that Larsson not only bounced back, but many believe he returned a better player. In the following season Larsson scored 58 goals for club and country – an impressive feat by any standards, but considering it was the season subsequent to his injury this was simply astonishing. Larsson remained top scorer for all his seasons after 1998 apart from the 1999/00 season of his injury. He continued scoring in the green and white with the fighting spirit that caused the fans of Celtic Park to fall in love with new their favourite son.
The technical ability was there for all to see, goals piled up – a Celtic darling was an amazing dribble against Rangers capped with a sublime chip over the goalkeeper (the first of two that afternoon). Larsson endeared himself to the fans, particularly to children around Glasgow’s east end who began to emulate his infamous goal celebration – striding across the Parkhead turf, his iconic blonde dreadlocks soaring and tongue protruding. This prompted children’s imitations, but from parents came rebukes with claims of setting a bad example. Nevertheless, there was an undeniable attraction and Larsson simply gained more adoration from fans even after he stopped the celebration.
Larsson’s intelligence off the ball, positioning and ability to forge strike partnerships were apparent and, although he had made a clear name for himself, some argued that he would have been more recognised had he moved away to a more high-profile club – but his loyalties stayed strong to the Bhoys. All respected him for the dignity and honesty with which he carried himself, the Swedish president personally requested him to come out of retirement for the national team in Euro 2004.
He transferred to Barcelona after an extremely emotional goodbye to the Celtic faithful. Performances the for Catalan heavyweights weren’t in abundance but Larsson made a crucial impact – coming up against his former club in Europe scoring instinctively but somewhat regretfully – positioning himself cleverly in true poaching form and taking a high ball around the goalkeeper with his chest and finishing coolly but classily refusing to celebrate. In the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal, Larsson came off the bench to turn the game on its head with two clever assists in the last 14 minutes helping Barca to their second European Cup.
A brief loan stint with marauding champions-to-be Manchester United followed and scoring became more sporadic but, nevertheless, a Premier League medal was received (requested by the club as special dispensation). From his time in Britain, Henrik Larsson established legendary status earning the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Andriy Shevchenko, Thierry Henry, Raul and Ronaldo.
“People always talk about Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, but I didn’t see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. You need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson.”
– Thierry Henry
Perhaps it is a shame that the Premier League didn’t see more of Henrik Larsson. But his story of skill, vision and redemption from a horror injury with arguably the most professional attitude in football transcended doubts of quality regardless of which leagues he played in.
Name – Henrik Larsson
Age – 38 (September 20, 1971)
Position – Forward
Manchester United (Loan)
Club level honours
Feyenoord – 2 KNVB Cups (1993/94, 1994/95)
Celtic – 4 Scottish Premier Leagues (1997/98, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04) – 2 Scottish League Cups (1997/98, 2000/01) – 2 Scottish Cups (2000/01, 2003/04)
Barcelona – 2 La Ligas 2004/05, 2005/06) – Spanish Super Cup (2005–06) – Champions League (2005/06)
Helsingborg – Swedish Cup (2006)
Manchester United – Premier League (2006/07)
Nationality – Swedish
Caps/goals – 98/36
National honours – Olympic bronze medallist – 2 Guldbollen (1998, 2004) – Tidernas Guldboll (All-time best Swedish football player, 2005) – UEFA Jubilee Awards, greatest Swedish footballer of the last 50 Years (2003)