Football: Larsson spins his greatest hits

Phil Gordon says the talents of Celtic's Swede are too tempting
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The Independent Online
HENRIK LARSSON would be the coolest Swede around right now, if it were not for the Cardigans. Everyone has heard the pop band, even if they don't have a clue what they look like, thanks to Ford plundering their recent hit "My Favourite Game" for their new car advert.

Larsson is the football equivalent. He's flavour of the month, but the Celtic player has a body of work that will ensure he is not simply a one- hit wonder. Europe has suddenly tuned into Larsson thanks to his 32 goals this season for the Scottish champions, but hitting the net is not even the dreadlocked Swede's favourite game.

No. Ask any of his team-mates at Parkhead why they love playing with Larsson and they'll mention his deft touch, his workaholic energy or his unselfish set-ups. Goals? They are just a welcome bonus, and Larsson, despite the hairstyle, is not a diva .

"Sure, I get the same pleasure if I help other people to score," reflected the 27-year-old. "It's nice to score goals, but it's more important that the team win." Celtic can't stop winning right now, chiefly because of the blizzard of Larsson goals, and he can add to that tally tomorrow night in the Scottish Cup quarter-final tie at Morton.

Larsson has already been named Sweden's footballer of the year - ahead of his countrymen who play in Spain and Italy - and the book has long closed on his being elected Scotland's top man. "Henrik deserves every accolade that is going right now," said his Celtic colleague Paul Lambert, who rates Larsson as good as his former Borussia Dortmund colleague Andy Moller.

"He is the best player we have in Scotland, but I can see why the coach [Jozef Venglos] said he was one of the best in Europe right now. He looks like scoring in every game, but it is his general play which is fantastic. Defenders stand off him because they are scared, but when they do that, Henrik simply gives them more problems. His movement is so good and it's hard to pin him down."

Already clubs from around the continent have started sniffing around Larsson. Celtic have offered to make the Swede the richest player in the club's history by doubling his wages to pounds 20,000 a week and extending his contract to 2004.

Larsson deflected inquiries about his future by stating: "I have not spoken to my agent yet about talking with Celtic." Yet Larsson is a young man who knows his own worth - he went to court at his previous club, Feyenoord, to win his transfer to Celtic in July 1997 - and so too does his agent, Rob Jansen, the man who handles the career of Dennis Bergkamp.

It is that kind of maturity that has British clubs falling over themselves to sign Scandinavian players. Nils-Arne Eggen, the veteran coach of the Norwegian club, Rosenborg, who have sold Vegard Heggem and Steffen Iversen to these shores, said the purchasers get equal measures of attitude and aptitude. "Our young people think about working to improve themselves, but I don't think young players in Britain do that. There is too much money and it's not good for the game."

Larsson knows that his own game has improved immeasurably since moving from Dutch football. "At Feyenoord, I was moved around a lot," he said. "Here I play behind the striker, which is my best position. But at Celtic I also have good players around me. If I am getting goals just now, it is because the others play good passes to me."

That, however, is only half-true. Larsson's clinical finishing sets him on a different plane, and he's not simply the latest beneficiary of that old cliche about Scotland being easy to score in. "A mediocre player could not do what Larsson is doing right now," said Brian Laudrup, the former Rangers and Chelsea player now back in his native Denmark.

"Scotland is not as easy as people think. It's simply that at times in your life you have so much self-belief that you can do almost anything. That's now happening to Henrik, and he showed that against England for Sweden earlier in the season."

Indeed, despite a rejected pounds 4m bid by Sheffield Wednesday, Larsson does not seem easily lured by the El Dorado south of the border. "I don't go around thinking about England or any other leagues," he declared. "The most important thing is that I am happy. My wife and son have a good life here, so that means I am happy." Presumably, so are the Celtic fans.

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