- Two wins in two matches for Sweden in qualifying for Qatar 2022
- FIFA.com met Kosovo scorer Sebastian Larsson on Sunday
- “Few people expected us to advance to the quarter-finals of a World Cup”
For the past few weeks, the headlines of the Swedish press have been dedicated to the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the selection for qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 ™, five years after announcing his retirement the day after the tournament. ‘UEFA EURO 2016.
Sebastian Larsson was also part of the adventure in France, finished in the first round in last place in Group E. So present in the selection for eight years, and already 31 years old, the midfielder could also have turned the page. But when he arrived on the bench, Janne Andersson made it one of the pillars he leaned on to give new impetus to the Blue-yellow. It was a winning bet, since two years later, Sweden reached the quarter-finals of Russia 2018, their best result since United States 1994.
With his character as a leader, his calm, and his quality on the ball, especially on a set piece, Larsson is, at 35, still essential, and wears the captain’s armband in the qualifications for Qatar 2022, which the Swedes have. started with two victories in two matches in Group B.
At the microphone of FIFA.com, Larsson discusses in particular the ambitions of Sweden on the world stage, as well as the discovery of his national championship with the AIK late, after spending 17 years in England, from Arsenal to Hull City, via Birmingham and Sunderland. He shares his memories of training with Thierry Henry, and his pride in having worn the yellow jersey more than 120 times.
Sebastian, you joined AIK in 2018 at the age of 33, having always played in England. Did you want to know an experience in the championship of your native country before the end of your career?
It’s something that I thought about more and more as I got older. I moved to England when I was 16, stayed there for 17 years. I started to get more and more curious about how I would feel playing at the highest level in Sweden. This feeling grew stronger and stronger as my career progressed, and when the opportunity presented itself, I felt it was the right time. Today, I really appreciate it since I got home.
For your first season, you helped AIK win the league title. Was it important to come back with something more to contribute to AIK, and not just to enjoy the end of your career?
Of course. When I first started thinking about a comeback, I really didn’t want it to come too late. I didn’t want to come so that it was just to be quiet, and feel that it was the end of my career. I didn’t want to not be good enough to help the team. I wanted to be sure that I could contribute to the success, help, with ambition and still being hungry to want to win.
You joined Arsenal’s first team in 2004. What does it feel like to sit at 19 in a locker room next to Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Gilberto Silva or Freddy Ljungberg?
This period at Arsenal was exceptional, these players were all without exception top top top quality players. They were everywhere, in the whole team! For me, as a young player who was trying to launch his career, having the opportunity to train with this team was amazing. Of course, I’m not going to lie, I was very nervous at first. I didn’t want to miss a pass for Henry, I wanted to give him the ball perfectly! The things I learned from this group were amazing. Their mentality, their quality on the pitch, the way they worked hard in training… they were completely focused. Today, at 35, when I look back and see myself as a young player in this situation, I tell myself that it was absolutely perfect. Obviously, it was extremely difficult to gain playing time in this team and to get matches. But if we talk about football education, I don’t think I could have had a better one, because at the time Arsenal were one of the best teams in Europe.
Almost 20 years later, you are the player with experience and an exceptional career. What differences do you see between the young player that you were, and those who enter your locker room today?
Many things have changed. Football, like society, has changed. This is to be expected, it is impossible to wait for things to stay the same all this time as society changes. Young people today are extremely serious in what they do, especially in everything that is done off the pitch. You think about what you eat from an early age, how to look after yourself, how many hours you sleep … From that point of view, it’s a big step forward. Other than that, when I first made it into a first team, it was a bit different. It was necessary to “deserve” this right. I knew I was young, that I had to help the team, to be in a way of serving the older people. That’s how we grew up, how we became a full-fledged team player. You can find positive and negative aspects when you compare two eras, but in the end football follows society.
What advice would you give today to young Sebastian Larsson who, in 2008, was preparing to play his first with Sweden?
I would tell him to try to enjoy every moment. I’ve been very lucky to have been a part of the national team for so long, and when I look back this first selection is a special moment. But I loved every minute that I was involved in the national team. It is such an honor! So to this young man, I would tell him to appreciate, especially at the beginning, but also to try to learn from players who have experience, in matches, in training, to take small things. When you are young, international players who have been around for a long time can really help you. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do.
Thirteen years later, you wear the armband and you have graced more than 120 capes. Are you aware of being part of the history of the selection?
It is a great honor, something of which I am very proud. I remember when I celebrated my hundredth selection, it was a special moment, because there are only a few players who have reached this milestone. But I’ve always been the kind of player who tries not to look back while I’m still active, as long as I can still look to the future. But when the end comes, it will surely be something that I can look upon with great pride.
At the 2018 FIFA World Cup Sweden were eliminated by England in the quarter-finals. What feeling do you retain: the pride of being among the best eight teams in the world? Or the disappointment of not having gone further?
A bit of both. It was already a great accomplishment. I don’t think many people expected us to advance to the quarter-finals of a World Cup. It was a fantastic experience. But when we get to this stage, we still want to move forward. So it was a big disappointment to be eliminated. And the most disappointing thing is that we had enough qualities, but we did not know how to display the level that a quarter-final requires. England deserved to win this game, but when you’re only one game away from having a chance to play for a medal, it’s painful to fail so close to the goal. But overall, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished.
Three years later, Sweden qualified for the next UEFA EURO, but finished bottom of their group in the UEFA Nations League. Has your team improved or regressed?
I would say we became a better team today. Young players with great qualities have joined us and give new impetus to the team. The competition to play today is the strongest we have had in a very long time. These players play all over the major European championships, and play well there. It can only make us progress. Of course, we finished last in our Nations League group, but we played against the best nations: France, Portugal, Croatia. Playing against teams of this level is not something we are used to, but these are matches in which we learn.
We have to try different things to find solutions, we have to learn what to do to close the gap and compete, but also to learn what not to do. We quickly realized that, even if we dominate the game, if we open the game a little too much, these teams punish you immediately. Teams like Sweden need to learn this when they play against the best in the world: you pay for every mistake you make.
Can these lessons serve you in the run-up to Qatar 2022, to do at least as well as in 2018?
It is an indispensable basis. You always have to have this mentality of using what you’ve done, and wanting to do better than the time before if you want to progress. Otherwise, you will never accomplish anything. At best, you will reach the same level. We know how difficult it is, how many good teams compete, and we have to perform consistently at our best. The good thing is that we have shown over the last couple of years that every now and then we have the level to compete with the best teams. We can make it difficult for them. This is the first lesson that we must take with us, so that our group continues to progress.
Personally, at 35, would participating in Qatar 2022 be the ideal way to end your long career with the selection?
First there will be the European Championship, which is a major tournament and the first objective for now. But to be honest, I never tried to look too far ahead. And even less at my age. It might be too far away a goal, but I haven’t decided anything yet, and I don’t want to think about it yet.
You’re at an age where you don’t want to look too far, but where you can look back: is there anything you would do differently if you could relive your career?
Going back in time can be beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. I’m sure we can always find something we could do differently. I decided to leave Sweden at a young age, but I am proud of the career I have had so far. I played in a league that I dreamed of since I was a child, the Premier League, I played there for a long time, I always knew how to stay in shape, which is why I did not have any major injuries. I was able to have a great career, especially with the national team, with which I have played many matches. And the last World Cup was a success and an important moment in a personal capacity. So I choose to be proud of everything I have done, rather than watching what I could have done otherwise.