By Patrick Reilly
Zlatan or Henke? Such is the esteem that Ibrahimovic and Larsson are held in by football fans in Sweden, they are simply known by their first names just like John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Separated by almost exactly a decade in age, the pair both hail from the Skane region in the Swedish south. Ibrahimovic (31) from Malmo and Larsson (41) from Helsingborg both starred for their local clubs who share a rivalry on the scale of Liverpool v Manchester United.
Supporters of each club like to claim their local icon is the greatest player ever to emerge from Sweden. It is a debate that can turn heated with regional pride very much at stake regarding these southern boys done good.
Similarities between the pair abound. Ibra’s parents are both immigrants from former Yugoslavia while Larsson’s father is from Cape Verde. The strikers cut their teeth in the Dutch Eredivisie, long a nurturing ground for promising Swedish talent. After first leaving Allsvenskan; both scored goals for fun, had spells at Barcelona and made several u-turns when it came to representing their country.
For all that they have in common there is of course one major difference. While Ibra’s undoubted talent is admired he has more detractors than supporters in his homeland, who do not care for his outspoken persona and cocky attitude. Larsson, by contrast, is a hugely popular figure cited as a good example for his sportsmanship and resilience throughout his career.
Hold a popularity contest between the two in Sweden and Larsson would win. Comfortably.
None of which matters a jot when it comes to assessing their abilities on the pitch - even if Swedes allow their personal views of both to influence their opinion of just who is the better player.
|IBRAHIMOVIC V LARSSON - THE STATISTICS|
|0.50||GOALS PER GAME||0.56|
|0.45||GOALS PER GAME||0.35|
|0.4||GOALS PER GAME
| 4 Italian leagues
2 Dutch leagues
1 Spanish league
3 Italian cups
2 Spanish cups
2 Dutch cups
1 Super Cup
1 Club World Cup
||4 Scottish leagues
2 Spanish leagues
1 English league
4 Scottish cups
2 Dutch cups
1 European Cup
1 Spanish cup
1 Swedish cup
| 7 Swedish Player of the Year
4 Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year
3 Serie A Footballer of the Year
2 Serie A Top Scorer
||1 European Golden Boot
2 SFWA Footballer of the Year
2 SPFA Players' Player of the Year
2 Swedish Player of the Year
Scottish Football Hall of Fame
All-time Uefa Cup/Europa League Top Scorer
All-time best Swedish football player
Comparing Ibrahimovic the player with Larsson the player on the statistics front shows their goalscoring averages are quite similar. For the national team, Ibrahimovic has already bypassed Larsson’s 37 goals with 39, doing so in 19 games less than his former strike partner.
It is often been said that Larsson is a great goalscorer while Ibrahimovic is a scorer of great goals. Such a statement tends to overlook Ibra’s tallies, particularly in Serie A, where has twice won the Capocannonieri.
Supporters of Ibra will point out he has played at the highest level in Europe for over a decade, putting an asterisk over Larsson’s 242 goals in 315 appearances for Celtic due to the Old Firm dominance of the Scottish scene.
Larsson of course had plenty of offers to leave Celtic Park during his seven-year spell but chose to remain for both sporting and family reasons. Loyalty is not a word frequently associated with Ibrahimovic and he holds the record for combined transfer fees after moves from Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan and now Paris Saint-Germain.
As a striker, Ibrahimovic’s muscular 6ft 5in frame and exquisite technique to boot make him one of the most difficult forwards to mark ... when he is on form. From that breakthrough solo effort for Ajax against NAC to the quadruple against England, he has shown time and again that he can win matches on his own.
Indeed Larsson himself was moved to say of Ibrahimovic in 2009: “The truth is that as a striker he has it all,” after advising his compatriot to join Barcelona.
He has won nine domestic titles in the last 11 seasons (if you include Juventus 2004-2006), but never the Champions League. Ibra’s spell with the Blaugrana sandwiched their triumphs in 2009 and 2011 while former club Inter went all the way without him in 2010. Few noticed Ibrahimovic’s absence during those celebrations.
Henke was almost 33 when he joined Barcelona in 2004 and quickly allayed any doubts that he was just a big fish in a small Scottish pond. Larsson won two Liga titles playing alongside Ronaldinho, who described the Swede as his ‘idol,’ but saved his best for last in the 2006 Champions League final when he set up both of his side's goals to defeat Arsenal.
In an interview with this writer in 2012 he said “that was my best ever impact as a substitute” and made up for the 2003 Uefa Cup final loss to Porto with Celtic.
Larsson’s pace, balance and old-fashioned poaching made him a key team player wherever he played. Zlatan’s outrageous talent means it is very much a one man show, something he discovered to his peril at Barcelona, where Lionel Messi has the star billing. He departed Camp Nou under a cloud referring to Pep Guardiola as an “idiot” in his autobiography which is just one of many altercations he has had with colleagues in his career.
|The truth is that as a striker he has it all.
- Larsson on Ibrahimovic in 2009
At international level Larsson enjoyed the greater success, featuring for Sweden’s bronze medal-winning team at USA ‘94 and clocking up the feat of scoring in three separate World Cup finals. Ibrahimovic has provided some moments of individual brilliance at major tournaments, like his backheel against Italy at Euro 2004 and volley against France last summer, but Sweden have tended to disappoint on the big stage whilst he has been wearing the yellow shirt. Many would say the same of Zlatan himself when it comes to delivering when it really matters.
Zlatan or Henke, Ibrahimovic or Larsson, tends to boil down to taste like who is your favourite Beatle. Ibra is more like Lennon, a volatile genius with greater natural talent. Larsson fits the McCartney role as the gifted all rounder who works better in a team. Lest we forget that football is a team game and Larsson - for now - remains the one you would rather have on your side.
Patrick Reilly is a freelance journalist based in Malmo, Sweden.