Imagine if a player a few months shy of his 33rd birthday left Celtic for Barcelona, and then played a big part in them winning the Champions League.
It just wouldn’t happen in 2017. Celtic have proved they have an eye for a player in recent seasons, making big profits on Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster when they joined Premier League clubs.
And Moussa Dembele could end up playing for one of the Champions League’s elite teams.
However, it’s difficult to imagine any current player being capable of making the step-up from Scottish football to Barcelona, let alone a 32-year-old.
Yet, that’s exactly what Henrik Larsson did in 2004.
The Swedish forward was a legend at Celtic, helping them win four Scottish titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups. He was the league’s top scorer in five seasons while in Glasgow, and Europe’s top scorer in the 2000/01 with 35 goals.
Larsson also scored twice as Celtic narrowly lost the 2003 Uefa Cup final to Porto in Seville. He scored 242 goals in 313 games for Celtic, and helped end Rangers’ dominance of Scottish football.
He could’ve played for any of Europe’s richest clubs during his prime, but chose to remain at Celtic.
When Larsson decided to leave Celtic in 2004 on a free transfer, he chose Barcelona.
The Swede, who would later have a short loan spell at Manchester United, has explained why he left Celtic, and revealed how many clubs were interested in signing him.
“It was hard but I felt that if I didn’t score for a couple of games, the (Scottish) media would say, ‘He’s not the same Larsson any more’ and I wanted to quit while I was ahead,” Larsson told Four Four Two.
“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 Barca came in and I said, ‘Yes!'”
Just a few months into his time at the Nou Camp, Larsson suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, the second serious injury of his career.
Yet, he still came back to play a key role in the team winning La Liga and the Champions League the following season.
The forward came-off the bench in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal, and proved the difference between the teams. Arsenal were down to 10-men, after Jens Lehmann was sent-off, but held a 1-0 lead thanks to Sol Campbell’s first-half goal.
Larsson, with two passes in five minutes, changed the game and helped Barcelona win their second Champions League title.
First, the Swede set-up Samuel Eto’o with a deft touch.
Then Larsson, in his final game for the club, played-in Juliano Belletti with a brilliant reverse pass.
After the final in Paris, Thierry Henry singled Larsson out for praise, saying:
“People will talk about [Samuel] Eto’o and Ronaldinho a lot, but they should be talking about the players who made the difference like Henrik Larsson with his two assists.”
It was clear Larsson’s fellow professionals held him in high esteem, and Ronaldinho’s nickname for him proves just how great he was.
The Brazilian was one of the best players of his generation, and arguably the best player in the world between 2004 and 2006, but he referred to Larsson as his ‘idol’.
“He used to joke every morning, ‘Hey, idolo, idolo!'” Larsson said.
“That was great! It wasn’t just about what he did on the pitch; you have to realise the pressure he was under at a club like Barcelona. I take my hat off to him for still being able to come in every morning with a big smile on his face. He’s a great human being.”
Ronaldinho, back in 2007 when Larsson joined United, spoke about his admiration for his former teammate.
“When he came to Barcelona, Henrik said nice things about me but by the time he left he was my idol,” the former Barcelona forward said.
“In fact, he was my idol even before that. I remember him playing for Sweden in the 1994 World Cup. Henrik taught me a lot about football and I learned even more from him as a person. I was disappointed that he left for Sweden because I would have loved to have played with him for longer.”
20 years ago today, the King of Kings arrived…
— Celtic Football Club (@celticfc) July 25, 2017