After more than two decades on the field and more than 300 goals, Henrik Larsson retired from football Oct. 28 in a heartfelt final game.
by Chipp Reid
Tributes and tears flowed freely Oct. 28 as legendary soccer player Henrik Larsson bid an emotional farewell to the sport in which he rose from a dreadlocked rebel to icon.
Larsson took the field for the last time in his two-decade career for Helsingborg, the team with which he began his career, in a match against Djurgarden. Even before the match began the more than 11,000 in attendance chanted Larsson’s name and hoisted banners saluting arguably the best soccer player to ever emerge from Swedish football.
"It really hits you when meet all this love,” he told the crowd, which gave him a two-minute standing ovation. “I'm normally quite a cool character but right now I feel like I could cry. It's huge to be able to end it on our home ground and it has to end some time.”
The normally unflappable Larsson paused, choking back tears before giving in to his emotions.
“I have had a fantastic journey these years with experiences that I appreciate enormously,” he said. ”I want to thank every one of you that—despite the bad weather—turned up tonight. I am quite a cool lad but in this moment I can’t stop the tears.”
Helsingborg announced it would retire the number 17 shirt in Larsson’s honor and the move clearly touched the striker.
"It's a fantastic gesture by the club, to retire it for ever. I'm very moved," he said.
Larsson drew the final curtain on a career that saw him rise to become one of the most respected players in the world game. After beginning his career in Sweden with Hogaberg and then Helsingborg, the young forward moved to Feyenoord in Holland, where he was under the influence of Wim Jansen, who would go on to become Glasgow Celtic manager.
Jansen then recruited him from the Dutch side in 1997 for $1.3 million and the player made an instant impact at Parkhead, with his performances in the green and white hoops seeing him take on the status of club legend.
Larsson still holds the record as the Clydesdale Scottish Bank Premier League's all-time top goalscorer, with 158 league goals from his six years at Glasgow from 1998 to 2004. He led all of Europe in scoring in 2000-01 and was the top goal scorer in the UEFA Cup as his Celtic side went all the way to the 2003 final against Porto in Seville, a match in which Larsson scored twice.
Larsson left Celtic in 2006, pursuing his dream to “play somewhere warm” when he signed as a free agent with Spanish giants Barcelona, where he became an idol all over again in his final match for the club.
A substitute in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final, Larsson entered the action with his team 1-0 down in the 61st minute of the game for Mark van Bommel. Within 15 minutes, Larsson proved the inspiration and creator of both late goals for Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti as the Catalans sealed a 2-1 comeback victory.
He then returned to Sweden with Helsingborg, but a call from long-term admirer Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson brought him to England in 2007 for a three month loan spell in which he scored three times.
Together with the Champions League winning medal he won with Barcelona, he also holds four SPL winners medals, won the English Premier League with Man Utd and contributed to two La Liga titles in Spain.
Then there was his play for Sweden. He led the Blue and Yellow to the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups as well as the 1996, 2000 and 2004 European Championships. He scored 37 goals for the national team in more than 100 matches and even at 38 remained a fixture in the side.
Along the way, something in Larsson changed. When he burst onto the scene, he was known as much for his scoring as he was for his dreadlocks and outlaw persona. He ran afoul of then-Sweden manager Tommy Svensson in 1994 and despite leading the team in scoring in the qualifiers, he saw only limited action as Sweden finished third in the World Championships.
His move to Celtic changed everything, as did his marriage to his wife Magdalena. An unabashed fan of basketball star Michael Jordan, he named his son Jordan after the former NBA great.
As for his final match, Larsson failed to lift his hometown team, which lost 2-0 to a Djurgarden side desperately trying to remain in the Allsvenskan. The club began playing tributes from players and coaches from around the world after the match.
“It’s rubbish to end things this way [with a defeat] but you can't have everything in life," Larsson said. "I don't know if I have to go down to the employment agency and do certain things, but I have the luck and luxury to be able to say no to jobs that are offered to me. But obviously there is an empty feeling at the present moment, and I need to fill that emptiness with something.”
That “something” could well be a return to Celtic, this time as a coach. He spurned an effort to get him to toss his name into the running for the Swedish national team job, saying, “"If I should become a coach, my ambition is to be the best I can be.”
"That means I will have to leave Sweden. I have gained a lot of experience over the years and I feel I'm on the right track to become a coach, but studying in the Swedish FA system doesn't interest me. I'd like to earn my license and badges in Scotland."