In recent weeks, the headlines in the Swedish press have been all about the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying, five years after he announced his international retirement in the wake of the UEFA EURO.
Sebastian Larsson was one Zlatan’s team-mates at France 2016, where the Blagult failed to make the knockout phase after finishing bottom of Group E. Thirty-one at the time and already an international for eight years, it would not have been a surprise had Larsson also called time with Sweden.
Shortly after that tournament came the appointment of new head coach Janne Andersson, who made Larsson one of the cornerstones of his team as he looked to give them fresh impetus. It proved a winning gamble, with the Swedes reaching the Russia 2018 quarter-finals – their best World Cup performance since USA 1994.
Blessed with natural leadership, composure and skill with the ball at his feet, Larsson is, at 35, still indispensable to the team. Moreover, he wore the captain's armband during the opening qualifiers for Qatar 2022, as Sweden kicked off their Group B campaign with two wins.
In conversation with FIFA.com, the midfielder talks freely about his country's ambitions. He also reminisces about the 17 years he spent in England, where he had spells with Arsenal, Birmingham City, Sunderland and Hull City, and shares his memories of training with Thierry Henry and his pride at pulling on Sweden’s famous yellow jersey more than 120 times.
FIFA.com: You joined AIK in 2018 at the age of 33, having spent your entire senior career in England. Did you want to experience the league championship in your homeland before hanging up your boots?
Sebastian Larsson: It's something I was thinking about more and more as I got older. I went to England when I was 16 and stayed there for 17 years. I became increasingly curious about how I’d feel playing at the highest level in Sweden. That feeling became stronger and stronger as my career went on, and when the opportunity arose, I felt it was the right time. And I’ve been really enjoying it since I got home.
In your first season back, you helped AIK win the championship. Was it important to return while you still had something to contribute to AIK and not just to enjoy the twilight of your career?
Of course. When I first started thinking about coming back, I really didn't want to leave it too late or for it to be about taking it easy and winding down my career. I wanted to be good enough to help the team and make sure that I could contribute to its success, while I still had my ambition and a hunger to win
You debuted with the Arsenal first team in 2004. What did it feel like to sit in a changing room with the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Gilberto Silva and Freddy Ljungberg at 19?
This was an extraordinary period at Arsenal. Without exception, all those players were of the highest quality – and I mean in every position. For me, as a youngster trying to launch my career, having the opportunity to train with those players was simply amazing. Of course, I'm not going to lie, I was very nervous at first. I didn't want to mess up a pass for Henry, I wanted to lay it on for him perfectly. The things I learned from this group were incredible. Their mentality, their quality on the pitch, the way they worked hard in training... they were completely focused. Today, at 35, when I look back at my young self in that environment, I think it was absolutely perfect. Obviously, it was extremely difficult to get game time in that team or entire matches. But if we're talking about football education, I don't think I could have done any better, because at that time Arsenal were one of the best teams in Europe.
Now, a decade-and-a-half later, you’re the experienced player with the impressive career. Do you see differences between the player you were back then and the young pros you share a dressing room with today?
A lot is different. Football, like society, has changed, which is normal. You cannot expect to remain the same all this time, while society evolves. Young players today are extremely serious about their profession, especially in terms of off-field activities. Now you think about what you eat from an early age, how to look after yourself, how many hours you sleep... In that regard, it’s a great step forward. However, when I first managed to make a senior team, it was a bit different. In a way, we had to earn that right. I knew that I was still young, that I had to help the team and kind of be of service to the older players. That's how you developed and became a full-fledged team player. You can find positives and negatives when you compare the two eras, but in the end, football takes its lead from society.
Looking back, what advice would you give to the young Sebastian Larsson set to make his Sweden debut in 2008?
I’d tell him to try to enjoy every moment. I've been very lucky to be in the national team for so long and, when I look back, this first appearance remains a special moment. But I’ve loved every minute I’ve been involved – it's such an honour. So, I’d tell this young man to appreciate everything, especially at the start, but also to try to learn from players who have more experience, whether in matches or training, and take away some small things. When you're young, international players who’ve been around for a long time can really help. And that's what I've always tried to do.
Thirteen years later, you’re now wearing the captain’s armband and have more than 120 caps. Are you aware that you’re now part of national team history?
It's a great honour, something I'm very proud of. I remember when I won my 100th cap. It was a special moment, because there are only a few players to have reached that milestone. But I've always been the kind of player who tries not to look back – at least while I'm still active and able to look to the future. But when the end does come, it’ll surely be something I can reminisce on with immense pride.
At Russia 2018, Sweden were eliminated by England in the quarter-finals. What feelings did that produce: pride at being among the top eight teams in the world or disappointment at not going further?
A little bit of both. It was already a great accomplishment. I don't think a lot of people expected us to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup. It was a fantastic experience. But when you get that far, you still want to go further, so it was a big disappointment to be knocked out. And the most disappointing thing is that we had the quality to go on, but we didn't perform to the level required of a World Cup quarter-final. England deserved to win that game, but when you're only one game away from having a chance to play for a medal, it's painful to come up short so close to your goal. But overall, we’re proud of what we accomplished.
Three years on, Sweden will be appearing at this summer’s EURO but finished bottom of their group in the UEFA Nations League 2020/21. Has the team progressed or regressed in recent years?
I’d say we’ve became a better team. Some tremendously gifted young players have come into the squad and given us fresh impetus. Competition for places today is as intense as it has been in a very long time. You’ll find our players right across Europe’s top leagues and performing well, which can only lead to improvements. Of course, we finished last in our Nations League group, but we were competing against the best teams: France, Portugal and Croatia. Playing against teams of that calibre is not something we’re used to, but these are the kind of games that teach you a lot. We have to try different things to find solutions and learn how to close the gap and compete. However, we also need to learn what not to do. We quickly realised that, even if we’re dominating a game, if we open things up a little too much, then these teams will immediately punish you. Teams like Sweden need to learn this when they play against the world’s top sides, as they make you pay for every mistake.
Can you put those lessons to use in Qatar 2022 qualifying and emulate what you achieved in 2018?
It’s an indispensable starting point. You always need to have that mindset of learning from things you’ve done and putting it to use, of wanting to do better than before if you want to improve. Otherwise you’ll never accomplish anything. At best, you’ll stay at the same level. We know how difficult it is and how many good teams are in contention, so we have to repeatedly perform at our best. The good thing is that we’ve demonstrated over the last two years that, from time to time, we have what it takes to compete with the best teams. We can make it difficult for them. That’s the primary lesson we need to take with us for our squad to keep progressing.
For you personally, would participating at Qatar 2022 be the ideal way to bring the curtain down on your long international career?
First there’s the European Championship, which is a major tournament and the primary objective for now. But to be honest, I've never tried to look too far ahead, and even less so at my age. [International retirement] might not be too far away, but I haven't decided anything yet, and I don't want to think about it yet.
You're at an age where you don't want to look too far ahead, but do you ever look back and think about what you might do differently if you could relive your career?
Going back in time can be beautiful, but also dangerous. I'm sure you can always find something you could do differently. I decided to leave Sweden at a young age, but I’m proud of the career I’ve had so far. I've played in a league I dreamed of as a kid, the Premier League, and played there for a long time. I’ve always managed to maintain my physical condition, which is why I haven’t had any major injuries. I’ve been able to have a great career, especially with the national team, with whom I’ve played many games. The last World Cup was a success and an important moment for me personally. So I prefer to be proud of everything I've achieved, rather than think of at what I could have done.