Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a footballer by their debut. On his first game for Celtic against Hibernian in 1997, new signing Henrik Larsson passed the ball to opponent Chic Charnley, who promptly scored the winning goal. Larsson’s first game at Parkhead ended in home defeat to Dunfermline, while his home European debut was marked by a first-half own goal. His first home league goals in Scotland came on his 26th birthday – September 20, 1997.
Signed to replace the departed Paolo di Canio, Celtic fans were initially unconvinced by their £650,000 Swedish striker. Rangers had won nine league titles in succession, and the exits of Pierre van Hooijdonk and John Collins a year earlier had weakened a squad Wim Jansen had taken over from Tommy Burns. After two games of the season, Celtic sat bottom of the table.
Seven years later, Larsson was Celtic’s King of Kings. He is the club’s most celebrated player of the modern age, their greatest goalscorer, cult hero and icon. When he departed for Barcelona in 2004, supporters gave him three separate send-offs. As he left the Parkhead pitch for the last time, Larsson burst into tears. In the press conference after the game, those tears continued to flow. If Larsson had surprised Celtic with his brilliance, Celtic had surprised Larsson too. They would never leave his heart.
Most emphatically, Larsson was a majestic goalscorer, the like of which British football had not seen since Jimmy Greaves. Having scored 50 times in 56 league games at Helsingborgs in his native Sweden, Larsson had struggled at Feyenoord. In Scotland and at Celtic he found his natural habitat; 242 goals in 313 games followed.
It is the variety in Larsson’s Celtic goals that is most striking. From overhead kicks to tap-ins via any number of one-one-ones, chips, drives and clips, he was better on his ‘weaker’ left foot than most strikers on their stronger right. The party pieces were the headers or, more exactly, the leaps from standing starts that facilitated those headers. Despite being 5 ft 9 in, Larsson regularly out-jumped taller defenders; once at that height, he generated extraordinary power and accuracy.
Never has that been more evident that in the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Eighty thousand Celtic fans travelled to Seville for that final, described by UEFA as the largest travelling support to have assembled for a single sporting fixture. Larsson’s two headers dragged Celtic to the brink of their first European trophy since the Lisbon Lions of 1967. The commentary to his first goal is the shouted soundtrack to his Celtic career. It still lifts the hairs on my neck: “Larsson…scores…of course he does. Henrik Larsson always scores.”
Some players are born to be footballers, while others forge a career by maximising talent with effort. It’s not that Larsson did not possess supreme natural ability, but that there can be few footballers who worked harder at their success. He was a footballer sculpted and hardened by adversity.
As a youngster, and as one of the few mixed race children in the town (his father was from Cape Verde), Larsson suffered racist abuse at school. “I don’t want to repeat what they said, but the only way out was to start fighting, and I did,” Larsson later said. “Then it turned out that I was quite good at football and people forget where you come from.”
Despite falling in love with football, Larsson was a late bloomer. Until the age of 18, he combined playing semi-professionally with a fruit-picking job to make money and support his career. His dreams of turning professional were only realised after an unsuccessful trial with Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Benfica. Striker Mats Ture Magnusson promptly joined Helsingborgs, and recommended the signing of Larsson.
At Feyenoord too, Larsson found life difficult. He was roundly criticised by Dutch media, fans and the board, and eventually had to take the club to court to force them to honour a minimum fee release clause in his contract, which was matched by Celtic.
Yet it is Larsson’s serious injuries that most threatened to derail his professional life. When playing against Lyon in October 1999, Celtic’s striker suffered a severe leg break that left his foot hanging limp in the air and his career hanging in the balance. In 2004, during an El Clasico when playing for Barcelona, Larsson tore his anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in his knee. At the age of 33, Larsson worked at his recovery and was given an extension to his Barcelona contract.
It was a greater tragedy that eventually caused the end of Larsson’s career, when his brother passed away after years of drug addiction while the striker was playing for Sweden against Denmark.
“I had to endure how he threw his life away and couldn’t do anything,” Larsson later said in an interview with German magazine 11 Freunde. “Henrik Larsson, the football star who was loved all over Europe, who felt invincible, was suddenly helpless. I had everything, he lived in hell. In that moment I realised that football, everything I had in life, was unimportant. I decided to retire in that moment.
“I saw my parents age ten years the day they buried their own child. I’d trade every day, every title, every goal for my brother to be alive and healthy. But that’s impossible. That pain is going to stay with me forever.”
The sugary cliche is that setbacks make you stronger, but that’s an incredibly romantic view. Misfortune is just as likely to redefine you negatively as positively, eating away at your confidence. Injuries are more likely to break a footballer than make them. To ignore that is to undermine and underestimate the hard work and mental strength required to overcome adversity.
Larsson (along with Ronaldo and Alan Shearer) is a poster boy for recovering from serious injury. Having been ruled out for the season in 1999/00, Larsson re-doubled his efforts and hauled himself back ahead of schedule. When doctors confirmed that he was closing in on a return to first-team action, Larsson begged interim manager Kenny Dalglish to let him play a part in the final game of the season and prove his fitness ahead of Euro 2000.
“I don’t think it changed my game but it made me understand even more how much football meant to me,” Larsson said of his injury. “How badly I wanted it when I played, how bad I needed and how badly I missed it. Injuries are something that’s part of football and it’s how you bounce back that is the important thing.”
‘Bouncing back’ has never been done in better style. Larsson scored 173 goals in his next four seasons, winning three league titles and three other domestic cups. “Before a game, I always tell myself that it will hurt and it should hurt,” he would say about his response to that setback. “I know I am bloody strong, stronger than them.”
That is a remarkable display of strength. When combined with Larsson’s selflessness, it made him incredibly endearing to a teenage football obsessive. His determination was driven not by his own personal ambition – other than to be the best he could be – but by his respect for his club and fans. As with so much of Larsson’s career, that was learned at Celtic.
“During my first season, Rangers had a chance to win ten in a row,” he said. “We could have sealed the title with a win on the next to last game, but we drew so everything was wide open. After the game an old Celtic fan hugged me with tears in his eyes and kept saying: ‘You need to win that fucking title for us!’ That’s when I realised you don’t play for yourself and your club only, but for the fans who love this fantastic club. We won the league a week later.”
Larsson was, to dramatically underplay his impact, a team player. He has spoken of his admiration for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but also questions the individualism that now reigns across a game in which he is now a manager. When Larsson scored twice in the UEFA Cup final, he described how there was “nothing positive” in his performance: “All I wanted was for Celtic to win the cup.”
The obvious response to Larsson’s goalscoring record is to glance at the Scottish Premier League and raise the eyebrows; the ‘flat-track bully’ accusations will forever ring in his ears. Larsson’s record with Barcelona and Sweden (nine goals in major tournaments) is an answer to those critics, but so too is his personality. Larsson did not play in Scotland because it was easy, but because all he wanted was to find a home and be happy. Johan Mjällby likens Larsson’s impact at Celtic to Diego Maradona’s at Napoli, and that sits well with the adoration he still receives in one half of Glasgow 12 years after leaving.
If we can judge a player by the tributes he attracts, there can be no doubt of his greatness. This is a man who Ronaldinho calls his idol, and Samuel Eto’o credits with his own development. Larsson taught Eto’o how to work, think and plan when without the ball. “He taught me to be invisible,” he says.
“Over my career I have played against some of the best strikers there has ever been. Both Ronaldos, Roberto Baggio, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and I can honestly say Larsson is not out of place in those names,” says Gianluigi Buffon, while Rangers manager Dick Advocaat believes that he had more to his game than Gabriel Batistuta.
Yet Larsson’s biggest fan was Alex Ferguson, who eventually signed him on loan in 2007 after years earlier failing to persuade Celtic to sell.
“We acquired a real aristocrat. On arrival at United, he was a cult figure with our players,” Ferguson said. “They would say his name in awed tones. In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough, Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off. On his return to the dressing room, all the players stood up and applauded him and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months.” They were not just any players. United’s team that day contained Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.
It is impossible not to wonder how Larsson would have fared in the Premier League at his peak, but our loss was Celtic’s gain. Their greatest team were famously all born within 30 miles of Parkhead; their greatest player was born 600 miles to the east.
“You don’t want to walk in another man’s footsteps, you want to create your own,” Henrik Larsson said when leaving Celtic in 2004. He need not worry; Larsson was never in danger of re-writing anyone else’s story. For seven years, Celtic’s King of Kings trod higher ground.