There was a moment towards the end of Sweden’s draw against Spain on Monday when Sebastian Larsson got the ball near his own penalty area. As throughout the game he was immediately put under pressure. The options were limited and the Sweden captain decided that he and the team needed a free-kick.
It was obvious what he was going to do before Pablo Sarabia even got close to him. Larsson was in the air before the merest of touches from Spain’s No 22 and after a slightly theatrical fall he had his free-kick. It wasn’t pretty – and staying on the floor clutching a calf wasn’t either – but it was very much in keeping with the rest of the Sweden performance. This was about getting a result, and Janne Andersson’s team managed it.
Larsson is 36 and in many respects better than ever. He has grown from being a skilful teenager with a tremendous free-kick at Arsenal, making his debut in 2004, to a leader, the player who never stops running, never stops fighting for his team. “The day I run around on a football pitch not caring about the result is the day I should no longer be on a pitch," he has said. “It is good to see that the fire is still there.”
It is a remarkable turnaround for Larsson, whose days in the national team looked numbered after Sweden’s poor showing at Euro 2016 and a knee operation during pre-season with Sunderland. For the first time in eight years he was not in the squad in the autumn of 2016 as Andersson tried to rebuild after Erik Hamren’s ultimately failed tenure.
Gradually, sin emabargo, he worked his way back and not even a drop into the Championship with Hull City could not stop him from being a regular in Sweden’s midfield. He was instrumental as they reached the 2018 World Cup with a play-off win against Italy and in their run to the quarter-finals in Russia.
Larsson has admitted he would like to have the speed of his younger self but also says he has become more astute. There may not be that many darting runs into the opponent’s penalty area any longer but he is very aware of how and where he runs. It is far from a headless chicken approach. “I am sure it is important to run a lot but I am focused on high-intense sprints during a game," he told Aftonbladet once. “The fact that when you run you do it properly. I am not the fastest but I can run often and at high speed and then recover. And then do it again.”
One example of his tenacity that will for ever be remembered in Sweden was against France in a World Cup qualifier in 2017. He had come on and, with the score 1-1 and Sweden under pressure, went on a lung-busting, morale-boosting run from his own half that did not end until he had put so much pressure on Hugo Lloris that the goalkeeper fluffed his clearance, sending it to Ola Toivonen, who scored.
Speaking to the Swedish football magazine Offside a year later he explained his thinking, returning to a theme that often comes up: he does not only run for himself but to put energy and belief into his teammates. “It is a bit strange when you’ve played more than 100 times for your country and it is a normal run that makes the difference. It was nothing unusual and I did it every now and then at Sunderland, to commit and follow through with a run.
“Sometimes it is just to show your teammates and supporters, to get everyone to lift themselves a few percent. Against France I felt that I wanted to contribute with energy and willpower. The initial thought was just to buy a few seconds and let our defence step forward a few metres but then Lloris took an extra touch … and Toivonen did the rest. If he hadn’t scored no one would still be talking about that run but sometimes you need that luck too.”
The game against Slovakia on Friday will be Larsson’s 131st for Sweden, a number few would have thought possible when he left Sweden and Eskilstuna for Arsenal at the age of 17. But he is still there, still fighting and still providing the motivation for himself and his teammates. He is far from the most skilful player at the Euros but he leaves nothing on the pitch – and sometimes that is just as important.
“The most obvious thing about being talented is that you are technically skilful, good at keepy-uppies, at dribbling and shooting,” he said in the interview with Offside. “But for me having a talent is at least as much about having the capability to be professional and dedicated. Not only in bursts but all the time. Every day. You have to realise quite quickly that you have to sacrifice things if you want to reach the top – and to stay there. Maybe I have been lucky to have had that from a young age, but it is also about deciding that this is what you want to do. It is not something that comes for free.”