Henke’s homecoming: the return of the King

Sweden has provided the world with countless sporting overachievers, but Henrik Larsson has captured the nation's imagination. And his return to Sweden is seeing him feted like a king, reports Eddie de Oliveira.

When a new king is crowned in Sweden, he traditionally embarks on an Eriksgata, a tour of the nation, during which he presents himself to his people. Henrik Larsson, or Henke as he is affectionately known, is not officially royalty, but his return to the Swedish football league after thirteen years abroad is luring so many fans that the king might be getting a little jealous.

Larsson has signed for Helsingborg, his hometown club in Skåne. In 1993 he left them for Feyenoord and a hugely successful career that has included a Champions League triumph, numerous Scottish titles and a Third Place medal at the 1994 World Cup. Larsson’s first game back in Sweden, a cup tie at Hammarby on 6th July, attracted over 9,000 fans. This is three times the average gate for a summer cup fixture.

Helsingborg’s first two home games are already sold out, and in their club shop Larsson merchandise is outselling all other team souvenirs put together. Clubs across the country are expecting at least a 30% increase in attendance.

“Henke’s return is good for Swedish football,” says Hammarby supporter Oskar Ekman, 24. “He’s still a great player, and a Swedish football hero. I was proud of him when he won the Champions League.”

Ekman’s view is typical. When Barcelona won the prestigious cup earlier this year, the Swedish press was so gushing you’d have thought Sweden had just lifted the World Cup. Pictures of Henke adorned the front pages, accompanied by special pull-out sections detailing the phenomenal achievement of the humble man from Helsingborg.

Larsson’s success is a classic example of Swedish ‘overachievement’. For a country of just 9 million inhabitants, Sweden does remarkably well at so many sports, among them athletics, tennis, golf, ice hockey and, of course, football.

This sense of overachievement explains why Swedes have tremendous pride in their compatriots who find success – they feel it is Sweden’s success too. A potent example is Sven-Göran Eriksson. Despite England’s disappointing World Cup, Eriksson remains a popular and respected figure among Swedes, who point to his extraordinary achievements with IFK Göteborg.

But while many may be proud that the first foreign manager of England was Swedish, it is Henke, not Svennis, who has consistently inspired and dazzled. The talismanic Larsson has given Sweden a lot more to shout about, most notably when, motivated by his young son Jordan, he came out of international retirement to play at the 2004 European Championships.

Larsson scored the goal of the tournament, and was a salient part of Sweden’s excellent campaign, in which they lost only on penalties in the quarter-finals. Prior to that tournament, which took place during the summer he moved to Barcelona, many within the game doubted Larsson’s ability to produce results at the highest level.

“At Celtic he was the Messiah, but he never proved he could walk on water,” says Expressen journalist Wayne Seretis. “In 2004 he showed he could. Some pundits suspected that he was afraid of failing in a big league. He proved them wrong.”

And he did so in style, taking on the role of super-sub for the giants of Catalonia. It didn’t get much more super than his appearance against Arsenal in the Champions League final. With thirty minutes to go, Larsson came on to set up both Barcelona’s equaliser and winner in the space of four minutes.

But for a 34-year-old with a profound and lifelong need-to-achieve, warming the bench was becoming a debilitating habit. When he announced his decision to leave Barcelona, Larsson said, “I feel I have a couple of years left in my body, but I would rather be playing football every week and that’s one of the reasons I have decided to go back home.”

Larsson’s enduring popularity cannot be explained solely by his on-the-pitch abilities, outstanding though they are. His human qualities are what make him different to other Swedish sensations of recent years. Larsson is a hardworking team-player of enormous integrity, and that strikes a chord in a country that values fairness and equality. He rejected an offer to extend his big-money contract at Barcelona, instead fulfilling a promise to finish his career at the club that gave him his big break.

“He’s a superstar but he doesn’t want to be – he is happy to be just one of the team,” explains Helsingborg manager Hans Eklund. “Henke has no ego. He even helps the laundry man in the changing room.”

Although Larsson prefers to keep his distance from the media, his good nature is conveyed everywhere he goes. As well as giving him the God treatment, many Celtic fans now support Sweden in major tournaments.

At Barcelona’s club shop, Larsson’s shirt was the third most popular, behind Ronaldinho and Eto’o. Not bad for a player who spent most of his two years there as a substitute. The adulation he has enjoyed throughout Europe is now returning to the stadia of Helsingborgs, Stockholm, Gothenburg and the rest.

Former Celtic and Sweden team-mate Magnus Hedman is not surprised that Larsson’s homecoming is provoking such excitement. “People don’t expect a successful player to be so friendly and normal. He is dedicated, very professional and shows everybody respect. Henke is a proper role model,” says the TV4 pundit.

Sweden’s top flight couldn’t be further away from the dizzy sophistication of Spain’s La Liga. But Larsson has not come to Sweden for a laidback finale to his career, and the dedication Hedman speaks of is evident: the striker’s return was scheduled for 17th July, but after Sweden’s unfortunate World Cup campaign he was desperate to play in the cup tie. His influence on the team was immediate. 9th-placed Helsingborg beat top-of-the-league Hammarby 3-1. Henke’s Eriksgata began with style.

Eddie de Oliveira