Henrik Larsson: striker

   Sweden has delivered a few great footballers through the years. The treble Gre-No-Li (Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm) of AC Milan fame back in the 1940’s are an example; also Tomas Brolin, Kennet Andersson, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Martin Dahlin and Kim Källström. None of them means so much to Swedish and international football as Henrik Larsson. The former striker became a legend for Celtic Football Club fans and to FC Barcelona, Helsingborgs IF and Manchester United as well.

Larsson’s father was Francisco Rocha, a native from Cabo Verde. Henrik’s mother was Eva Larsson and both of his parents believed he should keep Eva’s last name in order to be at least accepted in Swedish society. Henrik Edward emerged as a striker in the early 90’s. He started at Högaborg when he was 6 years old, became professional at 17 then he moved to Helsingborg and scored more than 50 goals in his only season at the club before his big break at Celtic. Henrik was a very fast forward who could play wide or just outside the box; he’s better known as an old school ‘killer’. A goal scorer praised everywhere.Henrik+Larsson+of+Celtic+

The first time Larsson came to my attention was during the 1994 World Cup where Sweden reached the 3rd place and several of its players had a great tournament including Thomas Ravelli, Martin Dahlin and Tomas Brolin. I was impressed by the fact that both Dahlin and Larsson had darker skin than their team mates, I didn’t know back then about the racial and cultural mixing that Europe has been going through since the 1960’s. Colors aside, both players were part of the tournament’s ‘dark horse’ team. Henrik took part in five matches and scored one goal. He was 23 years old but showed some skills and was spot in the game’s most important event.

Larsson played four years at Feyenoord and managed to win 2 Dutch cups, scoring 30 goals with the Rotterdam squad. However, his career would rise playing in Glasgow, Scotland with Celtic FC. Celtic is one of the oldest clubs in Scotland and the second most successful team in Scottish League after their rivals Glasgow Rangers. They are considered the best among their fans due to a trophy won in 1967: the European Champions Cup. Before the Swedish arrival, Celtic was struggling at domestic level not winning the league or the cup since the late 80’s. Their historical opponents Rangers were the dominant force at the time.larsson-celebrate

Henrik helped the Hoops along with such notable players like Paul Lambert, Jackie McNamara, Alan Stubbs, Shaun Maloney, Neil Lennon and Stiliyan Petrov. Celtic had a good six year run (1998-2004) where they obtained 4 League titles, 2 Cups, 2 League Cups and were runners-up at the 2003 UEFA Cup final won by Portuguese side FC Porto. Martin O’Neill was the most successful manager of an era that includes “bosses” like Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes and Wim Jansen. It can be said that Larsson’s adventure with Celtic started off with the wrong foot in 1997.  On his debut he gave away a ball that ended in goal for Hibernian, who went on winning the match 2-1. Later he scored and own goal on his first European game. Things got better since Larsson ended the season with 18 goals in all competitions and the Bhoys won the Scottish League for the first time in 10 years. He began playing alongside other strikers like Simon Donnelly and Darren Jackson but he became the main man upfront as the years went by. He had a good goal ratio and was feared among defenses all over Scotland and Europe too.

Perhaps the worst incident of his time with the catholic-Irish squad was the injury he suffered during a UEFA Cup tie against Lyon in October 1999. His left leg was broken and he remained out for eight months. He returned in time for the end of the season and to play at Euro 2000. Larsson was a true idol for Celtic; he scored 242 times and is the UEFA Cup all time top scorer with 40 goals.

He moved to FC Barcelona before the start of the 2004-2005 campaign. It was the time of Ronaldinho, Márquez, Deco, Xavi, Edmilson and Giuly. While there, he suffered another injury, this time on his left knee. Larsson completed 16 matches with the Catalan team, scoring 4 goals. He stayed for another year and won another La Liga trophy and the UEFA Champions League against Arsenal where he played a main role coming from the bench setting two assists for his team’s comeback[1] in Paris. At Barça, Larsson’s playing style changed a bit; it evolved to a second striker role, almost an attacking midfielder who played with calm, pace and vision, serving his team mates as a point of reference up midfield. Perhaps the two previous injuries determined this new way of playing or maybe his veteran status as footballer did not allow him to reprise former skills.larsson

He was well received by fans, players and Frank Rijkaard. The Dutch manager was sorry knowing the Swedish wouldn’t renew his contract for at least one more year. Larsson had made a decision: his era was set in Barcelona and he was ready to return to Sweden.

Back home he played with Helsingborg once again helping his home town team in order to win the Cup and to reach the knockout stages at the UEFA Cup. Before his definitive retirement Larsson moved to Manchester United on loan for the first three months of 2007 during the Swedish league winter pause. Although he only played 13 matches and scored three goals it was enough to earn respect from the Manchester United organization and supporters. United went on winning the league in May and Alex Ferguson even requested an extra champion medal and sent it to Larsson. Such sign of gratitude acknowledged Henrik’s contribution to the Red Devils.  larssonutd

Larsson played in three World Cups (1994, 2002 and 2006) and three European Championships (2000, 2004 and 2008) with Sweden before retiring from football. He was praised and loved by Swedish fans and agreed to comeback several times after declaring he would no longer wear the national shirt. Larsson’s record with Sweden include 37 goals in 104 games, he scored in every major tournament he played in and continues to be one of his country’s most respected players. He was a leader, a passionate player whose performances will never be forgotten or disdained. Henrik Larsson: the Nordic striker. Cheers.

Escribió: Israel Nungaray González (Ciudad Juárez, México 16 de abril de 2013).

[1] “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” Thierry Henry

About Israel Nungaray

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