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Remembering the legends of football – Henrik Larsson

Remembering the legends of football – Henrik Larsson
9 Oct 1999: Henrik Larsson of Sweden celebrates scoring the 2nd goal against Poland during the vital Euro 2000 qualifier in Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm, Sweden. Mandatory Credit: Laurence Griffiths/ALLSPORT

The man with the dreadlocks and the tongue, the so-called King of Kings is the greatest footballer Sweden had ever had until Ibrahimovic showed up. This is the Henrik Larsson story.

When talking about Henrik Larsson’s status as a football legend, it’s important to remember what he had to go through in order to become who he became. First, he was a dark-skinned man in a light-skinned society. Even if racism was not part of that society, that doesn’t change the fact that kids can be mean, especially towards those who are different. He battled through that part of his life and eventually reached Helsingborg, where he scored 50 goals in 56 appearances. In the first season there, Henrik Larsson led the team to promotion after 24 seasons in the Swedish lower leagues.

The breakout didn’t go unnoticed, as Feyenoord signed him soon thereafter. Larsson had a mixed spell in Holland, as the club changed several coaches and each of them used him in a different manner. Therefore, he didn’t have any stability. The spell ended on a bad note as well, since he had to go to court to get his release. There was a clause in his contract that Feyenoord and Larsson’s agent interpreted differently. Eventually, it was determined that the Swedish striker was free to move to another club, which he did by joining Scottish Celtic in 1997.

In the meantime, he represented Sweden in the 1994 World Cup as a 22-year-old, where his dreadlocks and tongue-out celebrations captured the world’s attention. Sweden finished third, its best World Cup result to date. Celtic is where Larsson spent his best footballing days. He went on to win four league titles in his seven years at the club. On the final day of his first campaign there, he scored the opener in a 2-0 win that saw Celtic clinch the title. It was the club’s first league championship win since 1988 and stopped rivals Rangers from breaking Celtic’s record of nine titles in a row. During the 2000–01 season, he netted 53 goals, which saw him claim the European Golden Shoe. He was the top goalscorer in the Scottish Premier League for five of the six seasons that he competed in. The only exception was the 1999–2000 season. That season, during Celtic’s defeat in a UEFA Cup tie against Lyon, Larsson suffered a career-threatening injury, breaking his leg in two places. It resulted in him spending eight months on the sidelines.

Following the arrival of Martin O’Neill in the summer of 2000, Henrik had his most successful season for The Hoops. He forged a prolific partnership with Chris Sutton, as he scored 35 league goals in 38 league games to become the division’s top goalscorer. He also helped the team reach the 2003 UEFA Cup Final against Porto, in which he scored two goals in a losing effort. It was the same Porto team that won the Champions League the following season, which tells you a lot about how good that Celtic squad was.

During his time in Scotland, Larsson decided to cut his signature dreadlocks, stating that he was getting too old for the look. He also stopped sticking his tongue out when celebrating because he got complaints from parents saying that their kids were imitating his distasteful habit. After seven years at Celtic, the so-called King of Kings moved to Barcelona. There, he was mostly a bench player. Plus, he got injured, which further reduced his chances for playing time. Despite of all that, he managed to make his mark for the club. In Larsson’s final match for Barcelona, his substitute introduction was pivotal in the 2006 Champions League final. Larsson assisted both of Barcelona’s goals in a 2–1 win over Arsenal. The lack of playing time forced him to depart Catalonia. Larsson moved back to Sweden to his beloved Helsingborg. The main reason was the desire to play regular football and be with his family.

He did spend half a season at Manchester United on loan from Helsingborg in 2007. Ferguson loved his presence in the locker room and offered him to stay for another year, but Henrik refused out of respect for the contract he had with the Swedish side. The decision to retire came in 2009. Since then, the striker has moved on to coaching and despite the lack of success thus far, he’s determined to become as good of a manager as he was a player. He has a son named Jordan who’s also a professional football player.

As a player, Henrik Larsson wasn’t as much of a goalscorer as he was a goal creator. He had a way to create goals for himself and for others. Technically gifted, he had great football intelligence that allowed him to find gaps of space on the pitch, making him a marking nightmare for defenders. He was also deceptively fast and a fantastic header of the ball. Larsson was able to put both of his feet to good use and excelled at set pieces as well. He was one of the players who put Scandinavia on the football map. After him, scouts stopped ignoring the region and actually started to play close attention to the talent there. That, along with his personal background and talent on the pitch is what makes Henrik Larsson a legend to remember.