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Yalla Shoot :Henrik Larsson: ‘I have 106 caps for Sweden but I see myself as foreign’ | Soccer

Henrik Larsson is standing in front of the patch of grass where he first learned to kick a ball. Behind him is the block of apartments where he spent his childhood, the balcony from which his mum would call him in for dinner. In front of him are the swings through which he would shoot, and the ponds on top of which he would play ice hockey in the winter.

Närlunda is an estate on the ­outskirts of Helsingborg, a quiet city near the most southerly tip of Sweden. Närlunda is a complicated place, an idyllic and green high-rise estate by English standards but also the scene of a brutal murder in 2021, where a man was shot dead in a nearby underpass. But then Larsson is a complicated person, devoted to his country but also unsure of his identity.

“I see myself as foreign,” Larsson says, as he looks up at the apartment. “I don’t know what I am, to be honest. I know I have 106 caps for Sweden. I know I’m Swede-ish, yes. But I never felt 100% Swede. I have to respect my father’s [Cape Verde] heritage, so maybe that’s why, but I don’t think I felt Swedish until I ­succeeded on the football pitch. When you’re nothing, you don’t ­matter. When you’re something, you’re part of this society. Then people forget where you’re from, what your race is.”

That feeling of otherness – also touched on by Zlatan Ibrahimovic regarding his upbringing in nearby Malmö – lingers for Larsson despite Helsingborg celebrating its most famous son by building a statue of him in 2011 on the city’s coastline.

“There were foreigners living here, coming from Yugoslavia, Greece, Finland. But here in this estate I was the only one with a darker complexion. I had a few fights here. If they call you [the N-word], or something else, I used to hit them. I think that mentality comes from home. You have to stand up for yourself. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. But you have two options: you lay down and cry or you get on with it. I chose the second option.”

At the start of the interview Larsson is interrupted by a phone call regarding his father, who lives nearby (“He’s 92 and has full-blown dementia. I’m a little bit upset with everything”). After Larsson leaves, he phones from the car to say thanks for the coffee. He is calm but confident, vulnerable and articulate, courteous but curt. It is a bewildering mix.

Henrik Larsson playing against Germany at the 2006 World Cup, one of his 106 caps for the Sweden. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Without Larsson, Barcelona would surely not have won the 2006 Champions League final, where he came on to provide two assists against Arsenal. Feyenoord and Manchester United fans might wonder what could have been if their clubs had got their hands on the striker in his prime, rather than at the start or end of his career.

But Celtic most defined Larsson’s career; he is their “King of Kings”. In seven glorious seasons in Glasgow, Larsson scored 242 goals in 315 games, including 35 goals in 58 European matches. He is surely the last player to have played in Scotland while regarded as world-class, with Larsson beating Hernán Crespo to the 2001 European Golden Boot after a 53-goal season. Some regard him as the club’s greatest player.

“The players Martin O’Neill brought in helped me become the player I was,” Larsson says. “Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, John Hartson. We were an excellent team. We beat Blackburn and Liverpool on the way to the Uefa Cup final in 2003, with 16 or 17 internationals in our team. It was a stronger Celtic team than now, and a stronger Rangers team.

Larsson scores for Celtic against Rangers in 2000. The Swedish international scored 242 goals in seven seasons for the Glasgow club. Photograph: Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto

“When we played against Rangers, we hated each other. But when it was finished, we were friends. Mostly Rangers fans were no problem. There was once when I was with Giovanni van Bronckhorst [his friend and then Rangers defender], who had just bought a new Porsche. We were in Uddingston because we were picking up some takeaway food. We used to order Chinese food a lot, peking duck after a game. There was this drunk Rangers supporter who wasn’t happy when he saw me and the new car. He was walking towards it, until Giovanni took him away. I loved the rivalry. It took some time to get used to it. I understand what it’s all about now, but not in the beginning.”

Larsson signed in 1997 after a turbulent spell at Feyenoord. He had helped Sweden to third at the 1994 World Cup but Feyenoord did not make the most of his talent, playing him in midfield and sometimes not at all. When the Feyenoord legend Wim Jansen was appointed as Celtic’s manager, he made Larsson his first signing for £650,000. The Swede, with dreadlocks inspired “by Ruud Gullit and Bob Marley”, scored 16 goals to help deny Rangers a 10th consecutive title in 1998.

The beginning of the end at Celtic was that Uefa Cup final, perhaps Larsson’s finest game for the club, in which he netted twice. Celtic were beaten 3-2 in extra time by José Mourinho’s Porto, who won the Champions League the following season. “I still haven’t gotten over that one,” Larsson mutters. “I wish I had done more, because I know how much it meant to the Celtic fans. There were more than 50,000 of them in Seville.”

Larsson informed the club shortly after that the next season would be his last. His teary departure in front of a packed Celtic Park and final interview alongside a crestfallen O’Neill are legendary.

“I don’t often show it but I’m an emotional person,” Larsson says. “I spent seven years at Celtic and if I had walked away without any tears, there would have been something wrong. I didn’t plan to cry but that’s what my heart told me. I didn’t show a lot of emotions otherwise, so I think people were a little shocked.

Larsson and his Barcelona teammates celebrate beating Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League final, in which he provided the assists for both Barça goals. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

“I got about 30 offers after announcing I was leaving Celtic, from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, something from the UAE. I got a phone call from my wife, Magdalena, saying Barcelona was interested. I was in my bubble with Sweden at the 2004 Euros. I said: ‘Tell them they have to wait,’ as I didn’t want to disturb my preparations. She laughed and said: ‘I don’t think they are going to wait.’ So she went straight over to Spain with my agent and took the negotiations herself.

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“Obviously it was a very different dressing room to Celtic. Coming to Barcelona, we had Ronaldinho, they also signed Deco, [Ludovic] Giuly, Samuel Eto’o at the same time as me. I enjoyed not being the main man any more. Ronaldinho had the ­pressure. And he dealt with it completely differently.”

Larsson was loved at Barcelona for his goals and work rate but nearly didn’t make the 2006 Champions League final squad. He and Lionel Messi had hamstring injuries in the buildup. “It was touch and go between me and Messi. But he sat in the stands and I went to the bench. Messi wasn’t the Messi then that he became. He was really, really good but not the player he was a year or two later. But also playing an English team, Frank Rijkaard knew I was used to that ­physical game.”

On the pitch after, Arsenal’s Thierry Henry was in no doubt who swung the final. “You want to talk about people that make the difference. That was Henrik Larsson, with two assists. I didn’t see no Ronaldinho, no Eto’o.”

Larsson left Barcelona that summer, when he scored against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England at the World Cup. “He’s the best managerial export we ever had,” Larsson says. “There’s nothing close to Sven. Unfortunately he’s sick of course, but we always had a connection. Helsingborg made a deal in 1989 that our most promising player of the year could go to train with Benfica [where Eriksson was the manager]. I was there for a week and it went quite well. Sven told me that if it wasn’t to do with the restrictions of three foreign players, he would have signed me.”

Larsson on life at Manchester United; ‘I was living at the Lowry … Louis Saha and Patrice Evra would take me to lunch, Wayne Rooney too. I thought: “Oh, they really care.”’ Photograph: Jon Super/AP

After the 2006 World Cup, and still at the top of his game at 34, Larsson made a shock return to Helsingborg but there was to be a final twist: Manchester United. He was at Old Trafford for only three months but he dazzled his teammates and Sir Alex Ferguson, and vice versa.

“When I joined Manchester United, my brother Kim had a christening for one of his boys,” Larsson says. “I asked Sir Alex if it was possible. He arranged a private jet for me to get home after a game. I was only there for 10 weeks but he made me feel so welcome. I was living at the Lowry [hotel]. Louis Saha and Patrice Evra would take me to lunch, Wayne Rooney too. I thought: ‘Oh, they really care.’ So you want to do good by them. It was an honour to represent Manchester United.”

Larsson, a new grandfather, remains busy with his own clothing line and a golf habit acquired in Scotland. His son, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), plays professionally for FC Copenhagen after leaving Spartak Moscow just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Jordan had a new-born child with his now wife. They had to leave a lot of things behind. He took one of the last private jets out of Russia. It was just about him getting out.”

‘For me as a professional player, I never cared about money,’ says Larsson. ‘It was about playing football, the love of the game.’ Photograph: Emma Larsson/The Observer

Most recently Larsson Sr worked as a coach under Ronald Koeman at Barcelona but he has fallen out of love with football.

“I’m so tired of the game. I felt that when I was in Barcelona as a coach, but I just wanted to check one more time what I already knew. The demands are so high. It was ­terrible the way Koeman got sacked, the way we got sacked. I’m tired of the game because more now than ever it’s about the money. I understand I made good money from my career. You can’t compare me with a factory worker. But for me as a professional player, I never cared about money. It was about playing football, the love of the game.

“I had an opportunity to go to Manchester United in the 1990s from Celtic. I would have earned more, maybe £10,000 or £15,000 a week more. But I had just come off three and a half years at Feyenoord where it had been up and down. I had just found my feet [at Celtic] and I wanted to go on with that. We’d played in the Uefa Cup, I played for Sweden, I didn’t feel I needed to go somewhere else. I didn’t become a superstar at Barcelona, I became a superstar at Celtic.”

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