When you mention the name Freddie Ljungberg to Arsenal supporters, the conversation inevitably turns to that wonderful curling effort at Wembley against Chelsea in the FA Cup final or to the delightful lob against Juventus which is remembered more for Bergkamp’s merry dance with the ball around the Juventus defence.
Even though Arsenal had scouted Ljungberg for more than a year, he was a very un-Arsene Wenger signing in that the French manager hadn’t seen him play live before signing him (another top English club tried this recently to comical results which makes this an even more remarkable success story). The story goes that Wenger, watching Ljungberg put in a stellar performance in Sweden’s victory over England on television, was convinced inside the first 30 minutes by the Swede’s remarkable talent.
“I am small, and people told me to go to Italy or Spain, where the play is less physical. So I made a point that I wanted to go to England. It was daunting.”
Arsenal proceeded to sign him for a bargain £3 million from his boy hood club Halmstads BK in 1998. Arsenal’s opponents on his debut? Manchester United. Ljungberg came off the bench and scored as the Gunners ran riot with a 3-0 victory but this was followed by a rather frustrating spell on the sidelines as he suffered from ankle and abdominal injuries.
“Normally I never get nervous, but that day, of course, it was my debut in England and fans were screaming my name, I think, from the whistle go, and I was like, I remember I was shaking on the sideline… it was an amazing feeling and I’ll always take that memory with me.”
But the Gunners did not have to wait long before the Swede found his touch again and he became a regular fixture in Arsene Wenger’s starting XI following the departures of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars in 2000. He formed an almost telepathic understand with Dennis Bergkamp and Bobby Pires. It was the 2001-02 season where the Premier League world was illuminated by the bright red striped hair and the black and white boots of Freddie Ljungberg.
The Arsenal faithful, smitten when he coloured his (already unusual) hair red, came up with this beauty:
“We love you Freddie, because you’ve got red hair, we love you Freddie because you’re everywhere, we love you Freddie, you’re Arsenal through and through!”
And when the hair was shaved off, it was cut down to “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got no hair”.
Ljungberg developed something of a liking for the big moments – when the stakes were high and the pressure was on, you could bet your bottom dollar that he would step up to the plate. After scoring a wonderful volley in Arsenal’s 2-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield, he repeated the feat 2 weeks later against the Scousers at Highbury (this time it ended 1-1, however). He grabbed a clinical brace against Juventus in the Champions League during that season as well and restored parity against Manchester United, a game which the Gunners eventually won 3-1
But it was his goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup final during the same season that will remain a highlight of his glittering Arsenal career. Edu picked up the ball in Arsenal’s half and swept it out to Ljungberg on the left. Three Chelsea players closed in on him but he breezed past two, muscled John Terry off the ball, left him on the seat of his pants, opened his body up and curled the most majestic effort past a helpless Carlo Cudicini to seal the victory.
Ljungberg went on to win the ‘Barclaycard Premiership Player of the Year’ award at the end of that season as Arsenal won the ‘Double’. When asked in an interview with the BBC what the highlight of his career was, he had this to say:
“Winning trophies are highlights. Also, the connection I have with Arsenal fans. On a personal note, I won the Premier League player of the year award [in 2001-02]. That hasn’t happened to other Swedish players and was nice for me.”
But it wasn’t all rosy in the behind the scenes because when he first arrived in London, he had no idea what anyone in the dressing room was saying to him:
“In the old days at Arsenal, there was amazing banter with the English players. For the first two years, I didn’t understand a word.”
He has played alongside many of the greats but there was only one who captured all his attention at training and on match days – Dennis Bergkamp:
“He had so much talent and ability but he never showboated it. He did it for the team. He never felt the need to show that he could do this or that for the fans. That’s something I really respected – he always wanted the best for the team.”
Despite playing a major role during Arsenal’s dominant years are the turn of the century, Ljungberg always fought with consistent niggling injuries and severe episodes of migraine. He had a cancer scare in 2005 but it turned out to be a case of blood poisoning from one of his large collection of body art.
He played through an ankle injury as Arsenal succumbed to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final and it is that competition which has proved to be a thorn in his career.
“We had a great team for many years at Arsenal but in the Champions League on a few times somehow we conceded an away goal in the last minute. You think you are through and it is all happy days and then someone scores and you can’t get back. In a short, not winning the Champions League was my low point.”
His injuries eventually took their toll as the higher authorities at Arsenal decided to part company with him after 9 remarkable years. He joined their London rivals West Ham United on a four-year deal, which was followed by a moves to Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, Celtic and J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse but was never able to touch the heights he did during his peak years at Highbury.
One of the biggest influences in his career was, unsurprisingly, Arsene Wenger.
“He was a great manager, and before I signed for Arsenal I had other options. But I had a big meeting with him for like an hour, and we discussed how he saw football and how I saw it, and we agreed on how we saw the game. And from then on, he developed me and gave me advice, I trained with great players and we all challenged each other and he made us be better all the time.”
When asked about how his modeling career went, he always brushes it off with a laugh.
“My pictures were printed off and put up at the training ground – in the toilets, the diner and I was everywhere. There was a lot of banter going on. In the end, I ordered in a few boxes of the underwear for the players and after that they were quiet. It was all a bit of fun.”
He eventually announced his retirement on August 24th, 2012 and decided to focus on his property and fashion business in the near future. He doesn’t have an plans to come back into football..just yet.
“There’s different things I want to do in life, and I always said it depends if you have a family and kids and stuff, I think you have to take that into consideration for future plans and stuff. But I always loved fashion and architecture and that’s something that interests me. I’ve been asked quite a lot lately, or ‘when you get older’, about the managing aspect of things because I like the tactical, and I have some experience in the game… that’s something as well that I’m thinking about. But I think it will all be decided if I have a family and kids.”