The big interview: Henrik Larsson – "I got letters from parents, upset that their kids were running around with their tongues out"

Henrik Larsson
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In 1999, an infamous photo appeared of you at Lyon with part of your leg virtually dangling off. Did that horror injury feel just as bad as it looked?

Damon Main, via Facebook

That ruined my potential career as a leg model – I’ve been told I’ve got great legs! I’ve still got the titanium rod in my leg. Straight after I broke it, I did two things. Firstly, it was a Dutch referee so I said to him in Dutch, “I think I’ve broken my leg”, as when I raised it, it was hanging the wrong way.

Then, as I was laying on the ground, I counted the months to the European Championship. This was in the October and Euro 2000 was that coming summer. That was my target, and in the end I managed to play in the tournament. But understand me on this: I’m glad that I broke my leg in 1999 rather than in ’87 or ’79, as back then I would have been finished.

After your leg break you came back better than ever. Why was that?

Kevin Cherry, Edinburgh

A lot of people did everything possible for me to come back a better player: Bill Leach the surgeon, physios Brian Scott and Kenny McMillan, Graham Quinn the masseur and Jim Hendry the fitness guy. I suddenly struggled with the simple things in life that you take for granted, like going to the loo. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been in that situation understands what it’s like. Those things made me want to fight even harder to come back, play football and give it everything I had.

In your first full season after the injury, you won the European Golden Boot. How proud are you of that?

Ben Shimmin, Manchester

No other Scandinavian player has ever done that, and we’ve had some decent players. I scored 53 goals, with 35 of them in the league. I’m very proud of it, but I couldn’t have done it without my team-mates: Chris Sutton, Tom Boyd, Alan Thompson, Didier Agathe, Regi Blinker, Jackie McNamara and Lubo Moravcik. They were all part of it.

I read once that Chris Sutton was your favourite strike partner, ahead of some brilliant contenders. Is it true?

Shawn Armstrong, North Shields

Yes, that’s right. Chris and I were a really good strike partnership, as he could be the shield for me. We understood each other and had a great rapport, as did our families. We still have that now.

What’s the weirdest thing you ever got tangled up in your dreadlocks?

James Moore, London

Defenders! They were always trying to grab them. The dreadlocks were easy to maintain: I got up in the morning and flicked my head. If they got too big, I’d pull them apart every now and again. In the end I got too old for them.

Why the tongue celebration?

Ameen Rabbani, Glasgow

It just happened. I saw a picture of it after a game when I had done it and thought, ‘Why not stick with it?’ But I started getting letters from parents, upset that their kids were running around with their tongues out, and I couldn’t be bothered with those letters any more. So I stopped it.

At the 2002 World Cup you played alongside a 20-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Did he have the swagger even at his first major tournament?

Jimmy Fairbairn, Uxbridge

He was more naïve at the time, but still a great personality. He had the skills but he didn’t have all the bits in place. Back then I was asked how good he could be and I said it was up to him, as he had everything. Now he’s one of the world’s best strikers, and has been for years.

Was the 2003 UEFA Cup Final loss to Porto the worst day of your career?

Andre Freitas, Guimaraes

Yes. We had Porto on the fork – I’d scored two, but we still couldn’t win. That was very hard to take. Winning a European trophy with Celtic would have meant so much to us and the fans. There were so many people who travelled without a ticket – they just wanted to be there in Seville to see us win... [pauses] but we didn’t manage to do it. I still get goosebumps talking about it now. That Porto team went on to win the Champions League. That’s testament to how good a team we had that year.

How difficult was the decision to leave Celtic and join Barcelona?

John Boyd, Dumfries

It was hard but I felt that if I didn’t score for a couple of games, the media would say, “He’s not the same Larsson any more” and I wanted to quit while I was ahead. I had one year left on my contract and, in order to stop all the speculation, I wanted to declare as early as possible that I wouldn’t sign an extension at Celtic – I didn’t want any misinterpretations.

There were more than 30 clubs interested, and I was looking to Spain because my dream was to play somewhere warm. I didn’t want to be fighting relegation, so I thought I would be pleased if it was a team in the middle. But then Barça came in and I said, “Yes!”