I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, and it's probably a good time to do it when Barca are missing him so badly. I know that Celtic fans loved Henrik Larsson for his many contributions during 7 starring seasons there. That's not surprising. What is surprising is that he only played 40 games for Barca in 2 seasons there, but he left as the third most popular player - just after Ronaldinho and club symbol Carles Puyol - in a team full of stars.
Larsson himself confessed to being surprised at how quickly the supporters took to him. I think our admiration of Henke stems from both his contributions on the field and behaviour off it. Even in the very beginning, there was something romantic about a man who had displayed remarkable loyalty to his old club through the years by doing that rare thing, seeing out a long contract, and finishing his glittering career with a couple of years at Barca, where he could prove his last remaining doubters wrong about his ability to excell at the very top level.
From his first home appearance, the crowds were won over by his great work ethic. The constant supply of goals didn't hurt either. Then he suffered a horrific and almost career-ending knee injury in Barca's home match with Real, a triumph marred by potential tragedy. There were rumours that the injury would force the 34 year old to retire. One of the best decisions Barca president Laporta has ever made was to offer him an unconditional contract extension at that point, as he lay in hospital. Then Larsson insisted that he was going to get through the long and hard physical rehab process and come back as soon as possible. This invoked a great response from supporters.
In his first game back from that injury, the Camp Nou rose as one to applaud Larsson as he ran onto the field. It was a wonderful moment.
Larsson's second season in Spain was marked by the lack of first team chances, as young Samuel Eto'o continued his blistering form and Lionel Messi began to challenge for a starting place on the right wing. However, he never complained about being on the bench and was in fact a model of professional behaviour, not to mention humility, to the many younger players at Barca.
When he did get the chance to play, he grabbed it with both hands, racking up an impressive goals to games ratio in any of 3 different positions on the forward line. Despite starting very few times, he still ended up with 10 goals in the league in the 05-06 season. And all this even though he'd announced in December of 2005 that he was leaving the club at the end of the season. His last home game was against Espanyol, and appropriately enough it was the game in which Barca were presented with the league trophy. 15 minutes before the final whistle he was substituted to allow the Camp Nou to stand up one last time and applaud him. It wasn't to be the last time they chanted his name, however.
Of course there was the Champions League final. (In case you need reminding, here's an excellent Guardian article about Larsson's contributions in that game.) Even Thierry Henry in his petulant post-game rant remembered to pay homage to the decisive influence of Larsson in turning the game around for Barca. With his intelligence and distribution, he set up both of Barcelona's goals within the space of 10 minutes to turn the dream of a second European triumph into reality. For that I think us fans will forever be thankful.
So to Henke, a great player and a wonderful person, thank you. For two great seasons, for the holy grail that is the Champions League trophy, for the memories. Thank you for everything.