Henrik Larsson: The King Of Kings
Perhaps the greatest Swede to ever step onto the pitch, Henrik Larsson began his professional career in Högaborg at just 17 years-of-age. Eventually, he moved to Helsingborgs IF and scored 50 goals in just 56 appearances.
These performances drew the attention of Dutch club Feyenoord. Problems arised during a contract dispute and Larsson was signed by Celtic in July 1997 for £650,000. His first league match and European match with the club weren't the greatest of performances.
A giveway resulted in a goal for Hibernian, and an own-goal was scored by the Swede in his European debut. Little did everyone realize, that Larsson would go on to become one of the club's greatest players of all time.
Ultimately, he was donned the 'King of Kings'. With dreadlocks resembling Bob Marley's, Larsson led Celtic to a Scottish Premier League title and a League Cup in his first season. This ended the Rangers' run of nine consecutive titles.
The horrific leg injury he suffered in a UEFA Cup match against Lyon in 1999 could have ended his career. Those of you that saw that bottom half of his broken left leg hanging in his sock should realize how amazing it was that he managed to return to action.
More incredible was the fact that he went on to win Europe's Golden Boot in 2001, ahead of £60 million worth of Serie A talent in the form of Hernan Crespo and Andrei Shevchenko. He totalled 53 goals in all competitions that year.
In his book, Henrik Larsson: A Season In Paradise, he re-visits the agony of the injury.
My leg was really starting to hurt despite the morphine, which was making everything seem very strange... In my slightly fevered state I started thinking how a touch I'd had earlier in the game had led to me breaking my leg. If one thing had been different before... I'd now be sitting next to Mark Rieper discussing golf swings, not facing a long fight back to fitness.
This extraordinary fightback is both inspirational and courageous. Upon his return, Celtic began to win silverware on a regular basis. They won three of the next four League titles, two Scottish Cups, and a Scottish League Cup.
In the 2003 UEFA Cup Final against FC Porto, Larsson scored two goals in a 3-2 defeat to the Portuguese side. Larsson's goalscoring accomplishments earned him the record of most goals scored for a club from the British Isles in European matches.
The 37-year-old scored twice in his last appearance with Celtic to defeat Dunfermline Athletic for another Scottish Cup win. A teary-eyed Larsson gave a goodbye at his testimonial match against Sevilla FC with a full stadium of fans at Celtic Park on their feet.
Overall, he scored 242 goals in 315 matches for The Bhoys. Larsson left Celtic on a free transfer in the conclusion of the 2003-2004 season, and signed a one-year contract with Barcelona.
His role wasn't massive in Barca's La Liga win that season. He scored three goals in 12 matches and one strike in four UEFA Champions League matches. The lone Champions League marker was against his former Celtic team.
"It was very difficult for me to celebrate my goal because I had so many great times here." Larsson said, following the game.
A left knee injury limited Larsson's 2004-2005 season, but Barcelona took the option to extend his contract. He scored 10 goals the following year as the La Liga title went to Barca once again.
It was announced in January 2006 that Larsson would leave Barcelona in July to finish his career in Sweden. News of his departure saddened Ronaldinho.
"With Henrik leaving us at the end of the season this club is losing a great scorer, no question. But I am also losing a great friend. Henrik was my idol and now that I am playing next to him it is fantastic." the Brazilian said.
Larsson's final game with the Spanish club was in the Champions League Final. Coming on as a substitute, the Swede assisted both of Barcelona's goals for a 2-1 win over Arsenal.
Thierry Henry praised Larsson's performance in the match saying, "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."
Following Sweden's elimination from the 2006 World Cup, Larsson returned to join Helsingborgs IF. Shortly afterwards, he joined Manchester United on a loan. The Red Devils wanted to hang on to his services, but Larsson insisted that he made a promise to his family and club to return.
During his stay, he scored three goals in 13 matches for all competitions. Sir Alex Ferguson respected Larsson's decision.
"He's been fantastic for us, we tried everything we could to get him to stay longer, but he made a promise and you have to respect that." he said.
Internationally, Larsson scored 37 goals in 102 games for Sweden. The big stage was never too much to handle for the Swede. He chose to retire from international football in 2002, much to the disappointment of his country.
A request from his son brought Larsson out of international retirement for Euro 2004. Larsson scored three goals in four matches before Sweden were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the hand of the Dutch.
His unbelievable diving header against Bulgaria was voted Best Goal of the Tournament. He joined Sweden at the 2006 World Cup and scored one goal in the dying seconds of a match with England to earn a 2-2 draw.
Uncharacteristically, Larsson fired a penalty shot over the crossbar against Germany in the Round of 16. A second retirement from country duty was announced on July 17, 2006.
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback convinced Larsson to return yet again, and he was included in the Euro 2008 squad. With the departure of Fredrik Ljungberg from the national team, Larsson was crowned the new captain on August 20, 2008.
Larsson is currently leading the team to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. When ever the time came to move on, Larsson left the world with one last impression to remember him by.
Fans worldwide (Celtic in particular) will have great memories of the legend to cherish. Henrik Larsson, you truly are the 'King of Kings'.
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