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Goal king Larsson led by example

Published: Thursday 3 February 2011, 10.50CET
Henrik Larsson was the epitome of professionalism in a career where his goals earned him hero status in Sweden and Scotland in particular.
by Jonas Nystedt
Goal king Larsson led by example
Henrik Larsson celebrates a goal for Sweden ©Getty Images
Published: Thursday 3 February 2011, 10.50CET

Goal king Larsson led by example

Henrik Larsson was the epitome of professionalism in a career where his goals earned him hero status in Sweden and Scotland in particular.

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Sweden chose Henrik Larsson as their Golden Player.

Henrik Larsson's footballing career was nearly over before it had begun. As a 14-year-old at the small Helsinborg-based club Högaborgs BK, the forward was overlooked for his regional youth squad.

Considered by some coaches as too small and too weak for the turbulent world of professional football, he missed out on the elite camp for Sweden's best 15-year-olds the following year. Yet those coaches had overlooked Larsson's remarkable determination and desire. That disappointed teenager went on to play at three FIFA World Cup finals and three UEFA European Championships, and to collect a sackful of trophies with Celtic FC and FC Barcelona.

Despite never representing his country at youth level, Larsson was a regular for Sweden from 1992 when his superlative form spearheaded Helsingborgs IF's return to the top division and prompted a call-up to the Under-21 side. The following year the dreadlocked youngster moved to Feyenoord before helping his country to a bronze medal at the 1994 World Cup finals. Larsson scored in the 4-0 third-place play-off win against Bulgaria having converted a crucial kick in the quarter-final penalty shoot-out success against Romania.

Larsson looks back fondly on the tournament, reflecting on the fact that, as the team's least experienced player, he was not expected to take a penalty against the Romanians. "At 23 years old, I didn't know any better," he laughed. "Patrik [Andersson, team captain] said: 'You're going to take the sixth penalty.' I said: 'Sure.' I was still young and naive, and didn't have clue how big it all was."

After two Dutch Cup triumphs with Feyenoord, in 1998 Larsson moved to Glasgow, where he would spend the next seven years. He delivered goals in abundance in every campaign, and the fans took him to their hearts for his attitude, his work rate and intense will to win as much as for a remarkable scoring record of 175 goals in 221 league games.

Few things illustrate his character better than his recovery from the horrific leg fracture he suffered in a UEFA Cup game at Olympique Lyonnais in October 1999. With his career in doubt, Larsson returned to form quickly enough to make Sweden's squad for UEFA EURO 2000 and claimed the Golden Boot award as Europe's top goalscorer the following season having struck 35 goals in 37 league matches.

Having announced his intention to leave Celtic, Larsson admitted that retirement did cross his mind. Yet, despite accumulating an impressive haul of trophies including four Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups, not to mention an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), he was hungry for more silverware.

Three goals at UEFA EURO 2004 proved that Larsson could still compete at the highest level and he duly joined Barcelona. Despite a cruciate ligament injury in his first campaign, he won two Liga titles with the Spanish club and, in his last appearance in May 2006, stepped off the bench in the UEFA Champions League final to set up both goals in the 2-1 comeback win over Arsenal FC.

That same year brought his third and final World Cup finals – he scored against England, then missed a penalty against Germany – and he later came out of international retirement for UEFA EURO 2008 before leaving the international stage for good, after 106 appearances and 37 goals.

By then Larsson was back where it all began, his home-town club, Helsingborg. He returned there in 2006 before embarking on a short, successful loan spell at Manchester United FC in early 2007. A perfect role model on and off the pitch, he played his final match for Helsingborg against Djurgårdens IF on 28 October 2009 aged 38, after which the club retired his No17 shirt for ever.

He shed a tear on his final appearance and spoke of the "need to fill that emptiness" without playing. His solution appears to be coaching – in December 2009, two months after hanging up his boots, he took the helm of Landskrona BoIS in the Swedish second tier.

Last updated: 3 February 2011

Last updated: 22/03/11 22.46CET

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