Henrik Larsson and the cult of a king

Henrik Larsson and the cult of a king

IT IS THE 1994 WORLD CUP QUARTER-FINAL and Sweden have 13 minutes to find an equaliser as they trail Romania 2-1. They turn to 22-year-old Feyenoord forward Henrik Larsson, a player who has been used sparingly in the tournament to date.

Kennet Andersson finds the leveller with five minutes remaining to send the game into a penalty shootout. Larsson isn’t involved in the move for the equalising goal but he bravely steps up to slot home Sweden’s fifth penalty kick, piling the pressure on the opposition. Thomas Ravelli saves and the Scandinavians go through. Larsson is not selected for the semi-final defeat to Brazil but he scores his first World Cup goal in the third-place playoff in a 4-0 victory over Bulgaria.

Twelve years later and 34-year-old Larsson is on the bench again – watching and waiting as his Barcelona side struggle to break down 10-man Arsenal, who lead 1-0 in the Champions League final. This time, Larsson is given half-an-hour to help his teammates retrieve the situation, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Larsson’s introduction is decisive as his two assists lead to the two goals that break Arsenal’s resistance and deliver the trophy to the Spaniards. While not quite the end of his career, it is a fitting reward for a player who had given so much between his introduction to the world stage in 1994 and the crowning glory of a Champions League winner’s medal. But, while many modern footballers are hot-housed from an early age, it took Larsson a long time to reach the very top of the game.

He came to the attention of Feyenoord after two prolific seasons with Helsingborg – his hometown club – in the Swedish second tier. But he was not to find happiness at the Dutch club as he struggled to find his best position and best form. After more than three years in Rotterdam, it was time for a change. And the outstanding football journey that followed his move was a testimony to hard work, perseverance, loyalty and, ultimately, reaping the deserved rewards.

Larsson played for four teams who have been European champions – Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. And his list of achievements with these clubs and the Swedish national team is remarkable.

With Sweden, he scored in three different World Cups over a 12-year period and, as mentioned above, was part of the side that came third in 1994. With Feyenoord, he earned two Dutch Cup winner’s medals. At Celtic, he was top scorer in the Scottish Premier League (SPL) on five occasions and won the European Golden Boot in 2001. At Barcelona, he turned the 2006 Champions League final in his side’s favour and, at the age of 35, he went to Manchester United on loan and played his part in helping the Red Devils win the English Premier League title in 2007.

Few players can boast such a list of honours but few would have seen them coming when Larsson arrived at Celtic in the summer of 1997. The Bhoys had just seen Rangers equal their record of nine titles in a row and, while they had come close to breaking the Gers’ stranglehold in the previous two years, the close season of 1997 did not promise much.

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.

Dutchman Wim Jansen replaced Burns and took over a team with a few decent players in defenders Tom Boyd, Jackie McNamara and Alan Stubbs. But the midfield was lacking in quality, Paul McStay having just retired, and after the departure of the ‘three amigos’, there was very little threat in attack.

The first game of the Scottish Premier League season would be a huge kick in the teeth for supporters and Larsson’s introduction to competitive action was nothing short of disastrous as his mistake led to the winning goal for Hibs as they triumphed 2-1.


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The Scotsman’s match report summed up the Scottish media’s rush to make a negative judgement on the Swede as it read: “The supreme irony for Celtic came when their ace card turned out to be a joker. Henrik Larsson had been left on the bench for fitness reasons and the Swede struggled with the pace of the game when he came on. He was then guilty of misplacing a pass to Charnley, who gobbled it up and set his sights before killing off Celtic with a 20-yard shot.”

It may have been an inauspicious start but Larsson would turn out to be anything but a joker. He had already opened his scoring account for the Hoops when he was beset by more misfortune in a UEFA Cup second leg tie at home to FC Tirol. Celtic had just levelled the tie on aggregate to make the score 2-1 in their favour when Larsson got in the way of a cross and turned it into his own net, leaving the hosts needing two more goals.

This did not discourage the Swede and he won the penalty that Simon Donnelly converted to make it 3-2; a minute later he set off on an incredible solo run from just inside his own half. In his latter days as a deadly striker and selfless leader of the forward line, it is often forgotten that Larsson could also be a great dribbler. Against the Austrians, he held off the attentions of the first defender with skill and strength, nutmegged a second as he set off at pace, skipped past a lunging third challenge, evaded a fourth challenge before – sensing the route in front of him was blocked – showing the presence of mind to slip the ball to Craig Burley at the edge of the box and the midfield man’s long-range shot found the net via a deflection.

In the context of a UEFA Cup qualifying tie against modest opposition, this moment of magic may not resonate with his future achievements but for many Celtic fans it was the first indication that this guy may be a bit special.

The 1997-98 season ultimately ended in glory after a dismal start. The Hoops had gone head-to-head with their deadly rivals Rangers once again but they finally got the better of them. Celtic blew the chance to clinch the title with a game to spare when they conceded a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Dunfermline. This meant they had to win at home to St Johnstone on the final day of the season to guarantee their first title since the 1988 centenary year triumph. Just as importantly for many, it would also prevent Rangers from making it ten-in-a-row.

It was Larsson who settled the home side’s nerves with a superb strike after just three minutes. The Swede picked up the ball on the left wing, cut inside and curled a powerful shot into the right-hand corner from 25 yards. A nervous 70 minutes followed before Harald Brattbakk added a second to seal the title.

It had been a solid first season for Larsson and he had won the hearts of the supporters. But his statistics would not prove nearly as spectacular as they would become. He scored 16 times in 35 league games and 19 times in 46 games overall, but he had failed to score against Rangers – a key measure.

Larsson dismissed any doubts about his ability to score in the big games as he struck twice in a 5-1 demolition of Rangers in November 1998. He then scored the equaliser in a 2-2 New Year draw with the Gers at Ibrox in another close title race. But there would be no happy ending this time as Rangers pipped Celtic to the league and then defeated them 1-0 in the Scottish Cup final. Larsson did, though, score an incredible 29 times in 35 league games and 38 goals in all competitions.

Dr. Josef Vengloš was replaced as manager by the ‘Dream Team’ of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish but 1999-2000 would be a nightmare year for Larsson. The season had started well and Larsson was forming a deadly partnership with Mark Viduka – both had helped themselves to hat-tricks in a 7-0 victory over Aberdeen days before they met Lyon in the UEFA Cup second round, first leg in France in October.

Just 11 minutes in the game in Lyon, Larsson fell awkwardly and suffered a severe leg break in the process. His season was effectively over – returning only on the final day but, at this stage, Rangers had long been crowned champions and Barnes had been sacked three months previously as Celtic imploded.

Coming back from such a serious injury would be tough and Larsson would be turning 29 just after the start of the 2000-01 season. There was hope that a full recovery had been made, however, when the striker netted against Italy at Euro 2000.


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Martin O’Neill had replaced Dalglish at Celtic and the atmosphere at Celtic Park was transformed. The gifted but troublesome Viduka had left for Leeds United and in came Chris Sutton after a difficult season at Chelsea. Larsson and Sutton kicked off the season with a goal each in a 2-1 victory at Dundee United and the Hoops rattled off four straight league wins before facing Rangers at Celtic Park. Larsson and Sutton helped themselves to two goals each in an incredible 6-2 home victory that sent out a clear signal that times were changing.

One of Larsson’s goals that day remains what many consider the finest of his time at Celtic. The Hoops had bolted out of the traps, taking a 3-0 lead after just 11 minutes but Claudio Reyna reduced the deficit to 3-1 before half-time, making the home fans somewhat anxious.

Despite a two-goal lead, the previous season’s failures and the general superiority Rangers had held for over a decade, ensured that such a lead would not make fans comfortable.

At this point, Larsson stepped in to calm the nerves. He picked up Sutton’s lay off midway into the Rangers half and attacked at pace. He held off one challenge, nutmegged Bert Konterman on the edge of the box and, in a moment of brilliance, scooped the ball high into the net as Stefan Klos was wrong-footed by the audacious finish.

It was the type of goal that separates the good from the great. It came at a key time in a huge game and demonstrated skill, speed of thought and the ability to do something out of the ordinary. When Klos came out to narrow the angle, he was exposed, Larsson having run through the heart of the defence.

Others may have side-footed the ball into the corner but Larsson seemed to notice Klos making a slight move to his left and, in response, he lobbed the ball high into the middle of the net, leaving him no chance of recovery.

Celtic romped to the title that year with Larsson netting 35 leagues goals to clinch the European Golden Boot. It was also Larsson’s season in the domestic cups. He scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 triumph over Kilmarnock in the League Cup final and his brace in a 3-0 Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs then sealed Celtic’s first treble since 1967 – the greatest season in the club’s history.

Almost a season out injured had not hampered Henrik in any way. He had returned stronger than ever. Another league title followed in 2002 as Larsson ended the season as Scottish top scorer again. He also scored three times in the Champions League as Celtic ended their first campaign in the competition by narrowly missing out on progress to the knockout stages.

That summer, Larsson left for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and scored three times in Sweden’s run to the second round, where they lost to Senegal after extra time. But there followed the huge disappointment of losing in the qualifying stages of the Champions League ahead of the 2002-03 season.

O’Neill’s time in charge of Celtic had so far been one of over achievement and upsetting the odds against the likes of Rangers, Ajax and Juventus. Losing to FC Basel on away goals in the qualifying round for Europe’s premier tournament was not expected.

The Hoops dropped into the UEFA Cup and met Blackburn Rovers in the second round. With Rovers managed by former Rangers manager Graeme Souness, there was added spice to the clash and Larsson’s late goal gave Celtic a fortunate 1-0 win in the first leg in Glasgow.

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Souness was confident that his side would prevail in the second leg but O’Neill worked his magic in the Celtic dressing room and his side went out and totally dominated Rovers, Larsson netting early and Sutton adding a second against his former side.

Larsson was again on target as Celtic squeezed past Celta Vigo to make the last 16. A broken jaw ruled Larsson out of the tie against Germany’s Stuttgart but the Bhoys prevailed 5-4 on aggregate in his absence, setting up a quarter-final against Liverpool.

Larsson returned from injury to score in the first leg but a 1-1 draw in Glasgow left Liverpool in the driving seat. In a tight second leg, Alan Thompson gave Celtic the lead and Larsson’s lay-off to John Hartson saw the Welshman smash home a memorable clinching goal.

After overcoming the side who would win the Champions League two years later, the semi-final against Portugal’s Boavista should have been more straightforward. Larsson scored once again in a nervous first-leg draw that ended 1-1 at home, but the Swede missed a penalty that would have given his side an advantage.

In the return leg, the Portuguese seemed to be playing for the 0-0 draw that would see them through to the final and the plan looked like working until Larsson intervened with just over 10 minutes remaining, scoring the decisive goal. After the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League, Celtic had gone all the way to the UEFA Cup final, where they would meet Porto.

The Hoops started as underdogs, Porto having dismissed Lazio with a 4-1 semi-final victory. And the Portuguese had the better of the first-half of the final, with Deco pulling the strings in midfield and Derlei opening the scoring on the stroke of half-time.

It didn’t look good for Celtic but it was once again Larsson who stepped up to the plate, equalising with a superb far-post header before Dmitri Alenichev put Porto back in front. The lead lasted just three minutes as Larsson headed in from a corner.

Following Larsson’s second equaliser, Celtic looked the better side for the first time in the game and it began to look like they may go on to win. But the game petered out and drifted into extra-time. Hoops defender Bobo Baldé was sent off in the 95th minute and goalkeeper Rab Douglas’s error let Derlei in to score the winner with just five minutes left. It was a heart-breaking end for Larsson, who had done so much to take Celtic to their first European final in 33 years and who had single-handedly kept their hopes alive in the match itself.

Celtic then missed out on the Scottish title on goal difference. The exertions in Europe, combined with a Rangers resurgence, were to cost Celtic on the domestic front as they failed to win a trophy. But most Celtic fans would still agree that the Larsson-inspired run to the UEFA Cup final was an experience they wouldn’t swap for domestic silverware.

Larsson’s time with Celtic would end on a high as he made the 2003-04 season his Parkhead swan song with his contract set to expire. Celtic made it back into the Champions League but just failed to progress again, despite memorable home wins over Lyon and Anderlecht. Their third-placed finish in the group saw them get another bite at the UEFA Cup and there was a sensational victory over a Barcelona side that featured Larsson’s future team-mates Ronaldinho, Xavi and Carles Puyol in the last 16. The Hoops won 1-0 at home before an excellent rearguard action earned a 0-0 draw in Catalonia.

Villarreal put an end to Celtic’s European hopes in the quarter-final but the Hoops won back the Scottish title in style and sealed a domestic double when Larsson scored twice in a 3-1 win over Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup final – his last competitive game for the Bhoys.


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Larsson’s next move was uncertain and the striker suggested that he would return to Sweden if the right offer didn’t come in. He left for Portugal to play in Euro 2004 and scored one of the goals of the tournament – a diving header in a 5-0 win over Bulgaria. Larsson scored three goals in all as Sweden made the quarter-final.

His move to Barcelona was finally confirmed at the end of June, as he signed a one-year deal with the option of a second year. Larsson was now approaching the age of 33 and joining a team of superstars so it would be a real test to see if he still had the hunger and the ability to compete at a higher level. Larsson’s record in European competition and international tournaments should have been indicative of his pedigree but there were still doubters who felt that he had taken the easy way out by spending his peak seven years in Scotland.

The truth is that Larsson was always going to be more of a squad player but he made a decent start and one of his first goals for Barça came against the team whose fans had christened him the ‘King of Kings’.

Celtic and Barcelona were drawn together in the Champions League and faced off at Parkhead in mid-September, less than four months after Larsson’s Celtic farewell. The Swede started on the bench and Barcelona dominated the first half and took a 1-0 lead. But the introduction of Larsson’s old strike partner Sutton turned the game back in Celtic’s favour and the Englishman equalised. The hosts were looking the more likely side when Barça turned to Larsson, who replaced Ronaldinho.

The Swede had a hand in the move that saw Ludovic Giuly put the visitors back in front and then turned villain as he pounced on a poor back-pass to clinically put his new side 3-1 ahead. Larsson, ever the professional, showed that there was no room for sentiment.

After the game, Larsson admitted: “It was very difficult for me to celebrate my goal because I had so many great times here, but more than anything I am happy with the three points because I am a Barcelona player now.” But Larsson’s first season at the Camp Nou would soon be over as he suffered a serious knee injury, having played just 16 games, scoring four times.

Barcelona had seen enough, however, to convince them that Larsson would be an asset in his second season and confirmed that they would keep him for a second year, allowing him to focus on his recovery instead of worrying about his future. Eighteen months later, Barça would reap the reward of this wise decision.

Larsson returned to the Barcelona line-up the following season and soon started scoring again. He was used more sparingly in Europe as the Catalan club made it all the way to the Champions League final, in which they would face Arsenal in Paris.

As was frequently the case in his time at Barça, Larsson started the game on the bench. At the age of 34, in a team that featured the attacking talents of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Giuly, this was hardly a surprise. But despite the quality they boasted, Barcelona struggled to find a way past the Arsenal defence, even though the English side went down to 10 men after just 18 minutes. The Gunners took the lead after 37 minutes but it wasn’t until the hour mark that coach Frank Rijkaard looked to Larsson.

Having seen the UEFA Cup slip from his grasp three years earlier, the Swede was determined to end this final on the winning side. Larsson was immediately busy, pulling defenders out of position and making his presence felt physically. With just 14 minutes remaining, his deft cushioned pass from just inside the box released Eto’o, who slotted home at the near post.

Five minutes later, the turnaround was complete and, again, Larsson was the creator. Juliano Belletti found him as he pulled out to the right wing. Larsson controlled the ball, turned and quickly spotted that Belletti had continued his run into to box. With Sol Campbell shaping to jockey Larsson, the defender had no time to react as the Swede’s low, drilled pass found its way into the path of Belletti who smashed home the winning goal from a narrow angle.


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After the game, Arsenal striker Thierry Henry identified Larsson as the man who had made the difference when he said: “People always talk about Ronaldinho but I didn’t see him today – I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game.”

This was Larsson’s final act in a Barcelona shirt and he had played a key role in delivering just the second European Cup in Barça’s history and their first since 1992. It seemed a fitting end to Larsson’s club career at the top level, as he headed for a return to Helsingborg – something he had always vowed to do.

First, though, Larsson had one final World Cup to play in. Sweden advanced to the second round again and Larsson scored in his third World Cup as he netted the equaliser in a 2-2 draw with England in the group stage.

Larsson was now seemingly content to spend the rest of his playing days in the stiller waters of Sweden’s Allsvenskan after 13 years away from home. But there was to be one final twist in the Henrik Larsson story. In January 2007, with the Swedish league in its close season, Sir Alex Ferguson tempted Larsson back to the UK but this time it was to play for injury-hit Manchester United in the Premier League on a loan deal.

Ferguson had been a long-term admirer of the Swede and said at the time: “I have always admired Larsson. I made a move for him when he was at Celtic but then they managed to persuade him to stay.”

Now 35, Larsson understood that he would be used more as a back-up but duly scored on his debut as United defeated Aston Villa 2-1 in an FA Cup tie. He scored twice more in nine further appearances, including a goal against Lille in the last-16 of the Champions League. United went on to lift the title, earning Larsson another league winners medal to add to those won in Scotland and Spain.

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.

By Paul Murphy @PaulmurphyBKK

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