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LARSSON: THE UNTOLD STORY; I sat Henrik down at eight years of age and told him to forget about becoming a footballer.

Byline: DONNA WHITE, Chief Writer

THE road to fame and success for any genius is inevitably scattered with non-believers.

Like John Lennon's Aunt Mimi, who told the legendary Beatle: "You might have a guitar, but you'll never make a living out of it."

Or the movie producer who screen-tested the great Fred Astaire and wrote: "Can't act, can't sing... but he can dance a little."

Celtic superstar Henrik Larsson has a similar story to tell from his days as a boy growing up in the Swedish city of Helsingborg.

He lived for football. And as other kids talked of being train drivers or firemen when they grew up, his only ambition was to become a professional in his favourite sport.

But he has never forgotten his old teacher, Lise-Lotte Johansson, who told him: "Don't count on football, Henrik, you won't make much money from it."

How wrong can you be. Now, with a salary set to top pounds 40,000 a week and the record-breaking striker poised to become a multi-millionaire, his teacher admits she hasn't forgotten that conversation, either.

Biting her lip, she smiles sheepishly.

"I just wanted him to be realistic. Not many boys make it to be professional players," she says.

But there are no hard feelings between the former pupil and his teacher.

When the Sunday Mail reminded Henrik of Lise-Lotte's warning, he nodded and smiled to himself.

"I remember quite clearly her saying those words," he laughed.

Her ill-informed advice, to a boy whose talent for the game she could not have known, only makes him feel good about himself for having proved her wrong.

"Of course, I hadn't seen him play. I'm only glad he chose to ignore me," says Lise-Lotte.

Like most teachers, she had seen boys such as Henrik come and go - dreamers with no interest in academic life, wasting their opportunities.

She says: "He was only about eight or nine when I taught him mathematics and Swedish.

"I told him not to count on football. It didn't seem likely that he would make much money from it."

For Lise-Lotte, it was his distinctive looks which made Henrik stand out from the other children.

"He was a gorgeous boy with curly brown hair. But at the front, one of his curls was white-blonde.

"If it wasn't for his striking appearance, you might not have noticed him.

"He was so quiet and polite. I think all he wanted to do was blend in with the other boys."

It was not only the maths teacher who doubted him in those early days.

Henrik - affectionately known as Henke in the city which is proud to have raised him - even doubted himself.

Lise-Lotte has since moved on from Wieselgren school in Helsingborg, but there are still many teachers who remember young Henrik, and confess that, like Lise-Lotte, they never dreamed he would become such a success.

Henrik Edward Larsson was born in 1971, to factory worker Eva Larsson and Francisco Rocha, a sailor from the Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa.

His parents met when Francisco's ship put ashore in Helsingborg.

The smitten African seaman got a job in a local factory and the couple settled in the city with Kim, Eva's son from a previous relationship.

They subsequently had two boys, Henrik and Robert.

Although he is a half-brother, Henrik has referred to Kim as "a full brother in my heart". Partly because their parents never married - and because they felt it would be easier for their youngsters to be accepted in Sweden - Eva and Francisco decided the boys should take their mother's surname.

Despite this, Henrik recalls occasionally suffering racial abuse at school. But the feisty youngster would answer taunts of "nigger" with his fists.

He quickly gained the respect of his tormentors and, with his talents on the football field, he went on to become a popular figure within the school.

Jan Gustavsson, who has been at the school since 1970, taught him German.

He said: "German didn't hold much interest for him. But, then, even when he was very young all he wanted to be was a professional footballer.

"Of course, we hear kids express impossible ambitions all the time, but I once went to see him play for Hogaborg, the local boys' club, and I was taken aback at his talent.

"None of us could have known he would make it as big as he did, but I had an idea that Henrik would never give up trying to be a professional footballer."

In the last five years, the competition for pupils between schools in Sweden has become fierce.

It has prompted Wieselgren to specialise in teaching music and football to its youngsters.

"Schools need to offer something extra to attract the children these days," says Mr Gustavsson.

"Henrik wasn't the reason we chose to offer football classes - but I suppose it helps when we tell parents that he attended here.

"Before his football career really took off, he worked at the school's recreation centre for a while, and we would often have lunch together.

"Even then, he was starting to become a star. But no one really noticed, because he was such a nice, down-to-earth guy."

Ann Bjorkman, who taught Henrik Swedish for three years, says: "He wasn't very interested in reading and writing. When he wrote essays for my class, they would often be about his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

"One Sunday, my son was playing football for Hogaborg, and I noticed from the match results over the weekend that Henrik had scored two goals.

"The following morning, I congratulated him in class. He was only 13, and quite literally glowed with pride.

"It was obvious that he was pleased I had noticed."

Playing for the Hogaborg club proved to be an important rite of passage for Henrik.

He learned the hard way that it was going to take more than talent for him to achieve his dream.

He had started playing with the local boys' side when he was six, and made his way up from the junior teams to the senior squad.

Always small for his age, he seemed to stop growing at 12, while his fellow players sprouted and towered over him on the field.

He still had his speed, but at 13 Henrik found himself spending most of the season on the bench. His enthusiasm waned, and he seemed to stop trying so hard.

Hogaborg coach Kenneth Karlsson remembers the many pep talks he and another coach, Bengt Persson, had with the young player.

"Henrik didn't realise that all he needed was a little time to grow, and he would be able to play with the best of them.

"At 13, he was so small and was often made substitute. He was really frustrated about that. But he was not built like a footballer, and his game suffered for a time."

His self-doubt came at a difficult time, when many of his friends were tiring of football, and quitting - pressurising Henrik to join them.

Kenneth says: "I remember having many chats with him around that time, as did Bengt, who sadly passed away in 1999.

"We saw his skill, so we didn't want him to quit. We spent a long time with him, discussing his future."

Also at that time, Henrik's parents were splitting up. Everything in his life, it seemed, was changing.

Football had been the one constant in his life, but his coaches told him that unless he worked hard, he couldn't even rely on that to continue. Talent wasn't enough.

"Once we'd convinced him to continue, Henrik really tried much harder.

"He trained two or three times a day by himself and I don't remember him missing a single club training session," recalls Kenneth. As his game started to improve, so, too, did the crowds who came to watch Hogaborg - particularly young girls.

"He got quite a female fan club," laughs Kenneth.

"Henrik was interested in girls, and they really began to take an interest in him.

"He was the star player. And with his curly hair, the girls really couldn't get enough of him.He was the rasta man."

Despite all the attention, football was his only love.

Yet as Henrik turned 19, all that was about to change...
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 22, 2001
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