“He’s not merely a player. He's a legend, a hero, and my idol.”
The words were Ronaldinho’s, and the subject of his lavish praise was not Garrincha, Pele or Zico, but a Swede by the name of Henrik Larsson. His was far from an isolated tribute. Indeed, in reflecting on the career of the former Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United striker, it becomes apparent that, while he might not have possessed the eye-popping skills of a Ronaldinho, he did have an unerring knack of commanding admiration, affection and, yes, adoration wherever he went. Sir Alex Ferguson compared him to Eric Cantona and said the Red Devils had been “lucky to have had him”. Frank Rijkaard lauded him as “an exemplary sportsman” and, highlighting his decisive role in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final, admitted that Barça had “tried everything to keep him”. Celtic fans, for their part, simply immortalised their hero in song as ‘the king of kings’.
The statistics will tell you that this is a man who scored well over 300 career goals, played in three FIFA World Cups™, earned 106 caps, won the European Golden Shoe and was voted Sweden’s greatest-ever player. Not bad. Yet beyond these particulars, there is an appreciation from his coaches, team-mates and supporters of the intelligence and tireless, selfless toil that underpinned every one of his performances for club and country.
Many wondered why Larsson spent seven of his best years at Celtic when the big leagues’ biggest clubs were calling, and why he left both Barcelona and Manchester United when these footballing titans were desperate for him to stay. Now, as he takes his first steps in coaching with Swedish second-tier side Landskrona – another decision that has raised eyebrows – the 39-year-old spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the choices that have shaped his remarkable career.
FIFA.com: Henrik, you always insisted that you wouldn’t go into coaching, yet here you are. What changed your mind?
Henrik Larsson: I got older! (laughs) No, it’s true I didn’t want to be a coach at all, but as you get older I suppose you realise it’s more interesting than you previously thought. You see the whole picture better than you did when you were younger and I love football, so becoming a coach wasn’t a very difficult decision in the end. And I’m enjoying it. There are good times and bad times and it can definitely be frustrating, but I also got frustrated sometimes when I was playing!
You played under some renowned coaches such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Frank Rijkaard and Martin O’Neill, all with very different styles. Who would you say you most resemble in your own approach?
That’s a difficult one. I was very fortunate to play under several very good coaches and what I’ve tried to do is take bits from each of them that work for me. Football’s nothing new, it’s been going for hundreds of years, so I’m not going to claim that I’m doing something that’s never been done before. All you can do is be yourself. Even if I tried, I couldn’t be like Ferguson, I couldn’t be like O’Neill and I couldn’t be like Rijkaard. I have to be my own man, with my own style, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I would say that I’m probably more aggressive as a manager than I was as a player. You need to talk more, that’s natural, and I definitely talk a lot more to referees now than I ever did! (laughs)
Some people were surprised that you started your coaching career with Landskrona, given that they’re rivals of your old club, Helsingborgs.
There’s a bit of rivalry there, but it’s nothing like Celtic-Rangers or anything like that. I think the media has made more out of that than is really true because, for me, it was never an issue. I love football and Landskrona offered me the chance to become a coach – that was something I couldn’t turn down.
Your team have been challenging for promotion all season, but we speak to you after two straight defeats that have left you needing other results to go your way if you are to go up. How would you assess your campaign so far?
The last two results have obviously been a disappointment but generally our progress has been more than ok. We still have two more games to play and it’s important we get the best outcome from those. It’s out of our hands now, that’s clear, but no matter what happens we’ve still played some great football. You always start any season aiming to finish as high as possible, but the main thing was to improve and, having finished eighth last season, I think we can say we’ve done that.
Having spent so much of your playing career abroad, do you also see your coaching career taking you away from Sweden?
I’ve enjoyed being back in Sweden, seeing family and friends, and the country will obviously always be close to my heart. But I loved it when I was abroad too – Scotland, Holland, Spain and England were all fantastic – and I would still describe myself as a citizen of the world more than anything else. In terms of going abroad as a coach, I’m coach of Landskrona for now and I love it here. But my goal as a player was always to be as good as possible and I’m the same as a coach, so obviously I have ambitions to leave Sweden again. I don’t have any set plan in my head about that but I think my experience and philosophy means I could adapt to any football environment.
Looking back at your playing career, you spent seven years at Celtic and became a hero, then spent a much shorter time at Barcelona, but won the Champions League, the biggest prize in club football. How would you compare those two experiences?
It’s hard to compare, but Celtic is special to me. That’s where my heart lies. It’s the club where I made my name and became a big player. We didn’t win a Champions League at Celtic but we got to the UEFA Cup final, won quite a few titles and I was lucky to be part of a great team. It was a fantastic time for me.
You were 33 when you left Celtic for Barcelona, and 35 by the time you joined United, but it was well publicised that you turned down more than one opportunity to sign for massive clubs, including United, during your time in Scotland. Do you ever regret not leaving for Camp Nou and Old Trafford a little earlier?
I don’t regret anything about Celtic. If there’s one regret I have from my career, it’s that I came home to Sweden when Mr Ferguson was trying to get me to stay at Manchester United. I should have stayed at United for longer because I had a great time there and everyone at the club was very keen to keep me. My time there was too short. The whole experience was fantastic and, although I was 35 at the time, I still felt that I had some good football in me. So, yeah, that’s a regret. But to have the kind of career I had, it’s not bad if that’s the only one I have. I’ve been very lucky. And you have to see it that everything happens for a reason.
During your spell at Barcelona, you witnessed the emergence of a young Lionel Messi. Do you share the opinion that he is currently the best player in the world?
I never really feel that you can say that one player is the best in the world, only that he is the best in his position. Messi is fantastic and, right now, I would say he’s the best there is in his position. But for me, Xavi and Iniesta are just as impressive in their own way. In their position, they’re the best. I really admire those two, and Messi of course, because you hear so much these days about players needing to be tall and physical to reach the very top.
Finally, what do you make of the resurgence of Sweden’s national team since Erik Hamren has taken over? Was new blood what the team was needing after so many years of stability?
You do need fresh blood now and again, and there does seem to be a bit of excitement around the team right now. For me, it was always about the young players and whether they could step up. Until recently, Sweden didn’t have so many of these young guys coming through, whereas now there seems to be a group of players who’re ready to make an impression. I’m very happy that’s the case because I only ever want the best for Swedish football, and especially the national team.