By Chipp Reid
Sweden national football team head coach Lars Lagerbäck looked to the past as he named Henrik Larsson to captain the side through it qualifying run for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The 37-year-old Larsson has retired twice from international soccer, only to return to action at the urging of fans and, at least in the case of the 2006 World Cup, at the request of his son, Jordan. Now, the Helsingborgs IF striker says he may not only play through the 18-month qualifying tournament but could stick around for the World Cup, which is in South Africa in 2010.
“Henrik has all the qualities that are needed in a captain,” Lagerbäck said at a press conference Sept. 2 when he named his squad. “Henrik will be the steady captain and he is a fine representative.”
However, Lagerbäck’s surprised Larsson.
“I thought they would pick someone who will be with them for a long time ahead,” Larsson said.
“It's an honor,” he said. “I was a bit surprised as I thought they would give it to someone who will be around for five or six years, but (Lagerbäck and assistant Roland Andersson) thought it was the best solution."
Larsson takes the captain’s armband from Fredrik Ljungberg who withdrew from the Blågult fold after the tournament in Austria and Switzerland. Larsson was captain for last month's friendly with France, scoring in a 3-2 defeat. The new skipper should duly earn his 100th cap when Lars Lagerbäck’s side begins its qualifying Group 1 campaign Sept. 6 in Albania.
Larsson has played in six major championships since his Sweden debut in 1993. Whether he remains captain should Sweden reach to South Africa, is a question mark. "I've said before that I will play for as long as my body feels OK, and that still stands," he added. "I hope to continue for a couple of years, but you never know what could happen."
Larsson returned to his hometown club Helsingborg in 2006 following the World Cup, at which he shined for a Swedish side that failed to live to its own expectations. The iconic striker remains a legend in Glasgow, Scotland, where he scored more than 100 career goals for Glasgow Celtic. He also played for Feyenoord in Holland, FC Barcelona and Manchester United.
Back at hometown club Helsingborgs IF since 2006, Larsson – who has 37 international goals – found himself in the middle of subject of other teams as well. A pair of English Premier League outfits, Everton and West Ham United, were supposedly interested in signing Larsson, but the Swede quashed any notion he was leaving.
“I will not go anywhere,” he said. “It has never been my intention to leave.”
Larsson’s agent, Rob Jansen, confirmed his client was happy in his native Sweden.
“There was interest from England but Henrik has decided to stay with Helsingborg and the club is now happy to keep him,” said Jansen.
The new Swedish skipper, who was part of Sweden’s third-place side at the 1994 World Cup, avoided drawing parallels between this Sweden squad and its predecessors.
“It's not easy to compare a team now with a team from let’s say the 1994 World Cup, but in a way we have a tradition that we follow in Sweden,” Larsson said. “We work hard as a unit, we're a strong side and even though we may not be as skilful as, say, Brazil we believe in what we've got.”
New system
As well as Albania, Sweden will face Hungary, whom they play in Solna Sept. 10, Portugal, neighbors Denmark and Malta in Group 1. After a disappointing early exit at the 2008 European Championships, where the team struggled to create chances, Lagerbäck experimented with a 3-5-2 formation against France. Larsson gave his backing to the tactical switch.
“I think it was great to try something different,” he said. “We haven’t kicked on in the bigger tournaments lately, and I think it’s great to try something new, but of course it’s Lars who decides which system we should use.”
Sweden opens its qualifying campaign without experienced duo Anders Svensson and Christian Wilhelmsson, both of whom picked up injuries in training. Larsson said the injuries didn’t concern him too much.
“Anders and ‘Chippen’ are two good individuals, but we’ve got a good set of players and I’m sure we'll do well,” he said. “It's always great fun playing and hopefully we’ll get off to a good start.