It wasn’t just his golden dreadlocks that distinguished Henrik Larsson from the other strikers in Scotland and Europe. Larsson’s supreme athleticism and prowess in front of goal were key in establishing himself as one of the deadliest strikers in Europe. As easy as it was for observers of the European game to question Larsson’s ability to thrive outside of Scottish football, it was just as difficult to argue against his goalscoring record. By the time the Swedish striker hung up his boots, Henrik Larrson had registered 434 goals in 772 games – an impressive goalscoring journey that was initially inspired by watching the exploits of another prolific legend… Pelé.
Born in September 1971 in Scania, Sweden, Henrik Larsson grew up in the small coastal city of Helsingborg. His father Francisco Rocha, from Cape Verde, met his wife Eva Larsson when his boat docked in Helsingborg in 1971. The racism Henrik Larsson experienced from an early age, due to the fact that he was one of the only mixed-race children in the town, led him to adopt his mother’s maiden name at the age of 12. To escape the troubles that school life presented him, he focused on football and, thanks to a video of Pelé’s life story his parents gave to him as a gift, fell in love with the beautiful game.
After an underwhelming lower-league career at Högaborg and Helsingborg, and a turbulent stint at Feyenoord, Larsson followed his then-manager Wim Jansen from the Netherlands to the cold shores of Scotland, and signed for Celtic FC for £650,000. The large price tag, accounted for by the sale of Paolo Di Canio, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadette, threatened to weight on the young Swede’s shoulders. It certainly looked like doing so on his debut as, coming on as a substitute, Larsson gifted Hibernian a late winner. However, it was to be but a mere blip in his outstanding Celtic career that was to follow. Finishing top goalscorer for Celtic in his first season, with 18 goals, Larsson lead his side to a Scottish League Cup and Champions double. His goals in both the Scottish League Final and the final game of the season already established him as a Celtic hero. In a front line comprising Darren Jackson, Simon Donnelly and Harald Brattbakk, it was the intelligent and composed Henrik Larsson who stole the show.
After two years of unpredictable management and a career-threatening double leg break in a challenge with Serge Blanc, Larsson was back on the field and, under the tutelage of newly-appointed boss Martin O’Neill, set to embark upon the most successful season for Celtic. New arrival Chris Sutton provided an added boost to his return from injury, and Larsson scored 35 league goals in 38 league games to become the Scottish Premier League’s top goalscorer and win the European Golden Shoe in 2001. On top of the individual honours that came his way, he also led Celtic to the domestic treble of the Scottish League Cup, Scottish Cup and the Scottish Premier League. Dick Advocaat, manager of rivals Rangers, explained how good a player the Swedish striker had become. In a telling act of magnanimity, Advocaat proclaimed “Larsson is one of the best strikers in Europe, maybe the world. If you watch Batistuta, he is sometimes not seen for 90 minutes but he scores two goals. Larsson has even more, because, besides being a good player and goalscorer, he has a tremendous work rate.”
His potency up front was once again clear in 2003 when he almost clinched the UEFA Cup for the Glaswegian side. In the Final against Mourinho-led Porto, Larsson scored a brace to bring the match into extra-time. Only a last minute Derlei winner denied Larsson and his side an historic European title. Though his heroics in the Final weren’t enough, Larsson finished his career at Celtic with four Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish League Cups and two Scottish Cups. He was the top goalscorer in the SPL for five of the six seasons that he competed in, and firmly established himself as one of the most intelligent and deadliest strikers in world football. Larsson scored 242 goals for Celtic in 315 matches and left the club as the SPL’s all-time leading goalscorer with 158 goals. His form was outstanding, and Barca soon came calling.
Though he did not play as an integral a part of the season at Barcelona as he did so often in Celtic, his effect was undoubtedly profound. After helping the Catalan giants win the 2006 Champions League Final (his last match for the club, in which he registered both assists), Thierry Henry spoke of his influence, “People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Giuly and everything, but I didn’t see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game, that is what killed the game. Sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto’o and people like that; you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson tonight.”
After his spell at Barcelona, Larsson headed home to local side Helsingborg (via a brief loan at Manchester United). It was a fitting end to an incredible career that spanned the European continent. His international career for Sweden was equally as impressive, too, as he scored 37 goals in 106 games and became the sixth player ever to score in three World Cup finals.
Nowadays, Henrik Larsson can be found trying his arm at football management, coaching his local side Helsingborg since earlier this year. Incredibly, at the age of 43, he brought himself on as a substitute and showed that he has not lost his touch in front of goal, finishing in typically accurate style. It seems that the Celtic and Barcelona legend has taken very well to management already… I suppose it’s quite easy if you can bring yourself on as a super sub.