#96: Freddie Ljungberg

Only recently has one of Sweden’s finest midfielders that the country has ever produced, decided to call it a day on his professional football career. His last club, Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse, mutually terminated his contract after just eight appearances. Neither parties felt that continuing his deal would be beneficial and, therefore, lead to the eventual announcement of retiring at the age of 35. His name is Fredrik (often shortened to “Freddie”) Ljungberg, former captain of the Sweden national team before retiring at the end of UEFA Euro 2008 and arguably the most popular Swede in and around Arsenal Football Club. Though it had been coming for some time, Ljungberg goes down as one of the admirable footballers Scandinavia has seen for quite some time. Coming in at no.96, we remember Freddie’s career as one filled with delight.

Born in Vittsjö on 16 April 1977, Karl Fredrik Ljunberg was born to parents Roy Alve Erling Ljungberg and Elisabeth Bodil Ljungberg. Married, his father was a civil engineer and owner of a construction business which also specialised in consultancy in the south of Sweden, whilst his mother was a Swedish Labor Department worker. Five years later he would have a brother of the same first name, Karl Oscar Filip Ljungberg. At the age of five he would move to the city of Halmstad, home to Superettan side Halmstads BK, a team in the second-tier of Swedish football. Though this, Fredrik would not go without a fight. The youngster at the time first detested moving away and refuted his parent’s orders. He battled with his mother and father in wanting to stay in the town of his birth, Vittsjö, however his actions were futile. His parents dragged him kicking and screaming to what would be their new home and to the local club Halmstads BK.

As a young boy he competed in a multitude of sports, including handball and ice hockey in his younger years as well as football, a sport which he would forge a career in. Handball was his first sport before transitioning into football. With a small frame and smaller body as opposed to the conventional sizes in handball, he has spoken of the aggressiveness in the sport as well. “I played team handball when I was a child. It is a very brutal sport. People hit one another. You have big guys playing, and you can get smashed properly.” and instead of pursuing it as a professional, he would meet Halmstads’ own local legend Olle Ericsson. He played with the city’s local side his entire career between the late 1930’s and during the 50’s before retiring. He managed the club three times from 1951 to 1958, and again for a year in 1964 and ’65 respectively.

Ljungberg would meet Ericsson and play in the club’s youth academy from the age of 5 up until 14. He proved himself to be a talented young player, with able technical skills and an occasional eye for goal. A creative player as well, often picking out his own team mates when on the ball, finding the right pass in order for his team to score. As he grew up at Örjans vall he did not neglect his academic studies, achieving high grades at school before attending university to study information technology and economics. However, as it has been commonly found in most footballers, the strains of both education and physical expenditure proved too much, quitting his course in order to fully concentrate on his football career.

From 1989 to 1994 Freddie moved up the ranks at Halmstads which he would later go on to be coached under youth team coach Robert Nordström. In the same year of being eligible for the senior squad he made his debut at the age of 17 in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s highest football division, against one of the country’s most successful clubs AIK Stockholm. The following year he had a full season that included his first professional goal and, a year on, winning his first silverware as a player with the Svenska Cupen (Swedish Cup), battling to victory against the same side he made his debut against in a 3-1 victory at Ullevi, former host stadium of the 1958 FIFA World Cup. It still remains as the club’s first domestic cup victory.

Ljungberg would feature for Halmstads for a further two years before interest arose from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, such as FC Barcelona and Arsenal. Eventually he signed for Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal side in 1998 for a fee reported to be around £3 million. At the time, it was the highest fee paid for a Swedish player. He had been courted by Arsenal scouts for more than a year and, even Wenger himself went a step further in watching his then-new signing play against the England national team in a friendly on television. Prior to that, he had never actually seen Ljungberg play, but rather relied on the scout reports handed to him to affirm that he was a talented young player.

After signing in early September his debut for the Gunners was just as promising as the scouts’ reports handed to Arsène told, scoring in a 3-0 victory over Manchester United as the Red Devils began their hunt for the league title. At the turn of the millennium Ljungberg’s talents had come somewhat full circle. As Arsenal stormed to their second league and FA Cup double under their French manager, notable performances from their Swedish winger during the absence of Robert Pirès, the French-Portuguese playmaker, helped steer the club into the closing stages of the season with trophies to celebrate with. As well as one of his most memorable goals coming against Chelsea in the FA Cup final whereby the game finished 2-0 to Arsenal, he also scored an equaliser against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, with the game again being won by Arsenal 3-1. Another spectacular goal came against Liverpool at Anfield, winning a penalty for his team before Thierry Henry would coolly, as usual, put the ball into the bottom corner of the net, before scoring himself after a sweetened cross from Robert Pirès allowed for him to find the net as well. At the end of the 2001-02 season, he had scored 17 goals in all competitions, and starting in 37 league games.

 

But one of the most iconic features of Freddie Ljungberg, in the process of developing a strong rapport with the Gunners faithful, was his hairstyle. A red stripe which often matched the colour of his shirt and signified his personality too, came a chant chorused during games. To the tune of the 1967 single produced by Frankie Vallie and The Four Seasons “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, it sang: “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, in spite of shaving it off later on, the chant was adapted to “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got no hair”.

Soon he started to create records. As Arsenal were defeated by Liverpool in the 2001 FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium, he scored and became the first player born outside of England to score in an FA Cup final. And as mentioned prior, he scored against Chelsea the following year, also making him the first player to score in consecutive FA Cup finals. Three years later, he found the net again, this time from twelve yards out on the penalty spot against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final as the match went to penalties, Arsenal winning the trophy on that occasion to make it their third FA Cup trophy in three years.

During the Les Invincibles year, he became a prominent player in the first team. Whilst comfortable down the wing, he was adaptable to most areas of the attacking third. Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars’ departures in 2000 made room for the Sweden international to form alongside the likes of Pirès, Bergkamp and Henry and Vieira.

Arsenal went on to win the league in the 2003-04 season after going a full season without being defeated, and a further eleven games before losing to Manchester United a season after at Old Trafford. Arsenal had become the first team to do so in the newly-incepted Barclays Premier League since 1992, but the first team in English football history since Preston North End during the late 20th Century.

However injuries and lack of availability started to persist with Ljungberg. Injury problems and frequent bouts of migraines limited his chances of consistently making a spot in the first eleven, before a hip injury suffered in 2005 had fears that it could lead to cancer, though fortunately, it proved inconclusive. It had instead come from blood poising in result of the tattoos he had been getting.

The following year he participated in the UEFA Champions League final for Arsenal, losing to eventual winners FC Barcelona 2-1 at Stade de France in Paris, France. Now at the age of 29, rumours began to speculate that his time at the Gunners would be coming to an end and, therefore, linking him with moves elsewhere.

During January 2007 many were thought to believe that Ljungberg was surplus to requirements and being forced out of the club. In the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory at Ewood Park, Arsène stressed the rumours of his under-pressure winger still having a future at the club, believing that he would stay until the end of his contract which would expire in 2009. In an FA Cup replay against Bolton Wanderers the following month he would return and score, helping his side reach the next round, coming up against Blackburn.

 

But the rumours would prove to be true; Freddie Ljungberg, after nine years in north London with Arsenal, would move east to West Ham United and pen a new four-year deal with the Hammers. The geographical differences between the two clubs proved that the two were rivals with one another. He made his debut in a defeat to Manchester City on the opening day of the season of 2007-08, starring as the captain. It would take several months for a goal to come at West Ham, coming in a home game against Birmingham City and scoring away against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, which would be his last game for the club.

An accidental injury in a game against Newcastle United involving centre back Steven Taylor saw the ex-Arsenal player break his ribs after the Magpies defender stepped on them. Rumours once again circulated Ljungberg, citing that his employers were offering £3 million, the same amount that Arsenal paid for him when he first came to England, to mutually terminate his contract. These claims were quashed by his agents, as well as West Ham’s chief executive. After UEFA Euro 2008, despite being captain, retired from the national team and signalled the end of playing any further part in the country’s campaign to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup two years later, and what would have been his third. He exclaimed: “The simple fact is the physical strain of playing in the national team and in club football for such a long time has finally taken its toll. And that is why I have decided to concentrate on playing for West Ham United and that is where my focus will be.”

But when he was required to report for training, he did not report. It would be days later that he would terminate his four-year deal only one year in for a fee of £6 million and enter a period of hiatus from the professional game. “I gave my all at West Ham and enjoyed my time there but the decision is best for the both of us. Now, I will take my time to consider my football future.”

The absence from football began a whirlwind of rumours and speculation as it has been commonplace for Ljungberg. These were mainly rumours linking him with a move to the States, with one of the several top clubs in the Major League Soccer division, and in particular with Los Angeles Galaxy with marquee players David Beckham and Landon Donovan. It was in fact that Ljungberg was receiving a tattoo from a revered artist and, as months passed, other areas of the world with several different clubs had been linked. Italy, with Serie A clubs Fiorentina, AC Milan, SS Lazio and AS Roma. In the closing stages of the transfer window, it was believed that Freddie was coming to the end of his playing career and looking to pursue a different career, this time in either fashion or furniture design as he has shown in his modelling with global brand Calvin Klein. British tabloid The Daily Star pictured the former Sweden skipper in New York, London and back in Sweden with several models, including singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia and Elissa Sursara.

 

 

It eventually came to signing for MLS team Seattle Sounders of October 2008 that finally quashed the speculation that would not leave Freddie alone. a two-year deal worth around $10 million, it rivalled David Beckham’s contract at Los Angeles Galaxy, as well as private endorsements and sponsorships multiplying the value of it. Notwithstanding the Seattle’s new designated player signing, injuries and absences were prevalent again. Several weeks at a time Freddie would miss training with his club and sit on the sidelines, before his contract would end in 2010. Rumours, as it has been central to Ljungberg’s career, showed Asian clubs perceiving interest in the then-33-year-old.

It would be stints at Chicago Fire, another MLS club, before returned to Britain in Glasgow Celtic and eventually, his final club, Shimizu S-Pulse that it would be time called on the career of Fredrik Ljungberg. After 17 years old playing and featuring in four different leagues and in three different countries, with multiple accolades, the ageing winger would choose another career path, but nevertheless commemorated throughout football.

Internationally, it could have been that Ljungberg would not make it as a Sweden international, because Lasse Lägerback, former head coach of the Sweden national team, felt that he was too short. Lägerback in Ljungberg’s biography stated “Of course it’s difficult to say at 15 to 16 years of age (if he was good enough to make it in the senior squad). To be honest, I wouldn’t say I thought he would become an international player because he was very, very little.

“In his first match, we played Denmark and he scored twice so he convinced me rather fast that he was a good player even if he was very, very small but he was quick.”

He eventually made his debut against the country he would play against later on in his career, the United States, in a 1-0 defeat in Colorado and scored against Denmark in Mälmo. Ten years of playing duty for Sverige saw him participate in the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups for Sweden, as well as both 2004 and 2008 UEFA European Championships, with the latter being the last tournament and calling time on his international career.

 

There are an ‘arsenal’ of awards in the cabinet of Freddie, perhaps at home. He has achieved many accolades throughout his life and professional playing career which atone to the sayings that he is one of the best players Sweden has ever produced. From being selected as the ‘Best Midfielder of the Year’ by the Swedish football association in 1998 to being inducted into the Major League Soccer All-Star XI in 2009 there are more than several. Some outside of football, including an E! Entertainment Award as one of the world’s sexiest men. There are many.

Whilst he starts from small in the fashion world, furniture design industry, or wherever he may go to next, there is no doubt that the world of football will remain fond of the name ‘Freddie Ljungberg’ when reminiscing of players that have had an influence. Arsenal in particular. As mentioned before and calling time on his career, no. 96 is indeed Freddie Ljungberg.

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