Feature

'My whole time at Arsenal was amazing'

He was always one of Arsenal's most cosmopolitan stars, and Freddie Ljungberg is soon to embark on a new chapter of a colourful and eclectic career – in India.

The marauding midfielder of the 2002 and 2004 title winning sides, who was a firm fans' favourite during nine eventful years at the Club, is the latest player to put his name down for the new Indian Super League.

Starting in October, the eight-team Super League has already signed up Luis Garcia and David Trezeguet, as India look to transfer the successful Cricket Twenty20 format to football.

A well-travelled and highly marketable footballer (he previously modeled for Calvin Klein), Freddie would appear to be the ideal choice for the nascent league, but the Swede will also be continuing his role as Arsenal club ambassador, a position he took up last summer.

Freddie Ljungberg

Freddie Ljungberg

 

The Arsenal Magazine caught up with Freddie to ask him about his recent movements, but started by reminiscing about his glory days in red and white.

Freddie, let's go back 16 years to 1998 when you signed for Arsenal. How did the move come about? It's a long time ago! We'd been saying no to a few clubs for quite a while but then I played for the national team against England and the week after, a lot of bids were coming in. We made a decision that I would speak to three clubs, on three successive days. I went to Arsenal first, I liked Arsène and that was it, I signed. I had a meeting with a similar club to Arsenal booked in for the next day, but I didn't go and see them, I cancelled it because I knew I wanted to join Arsenal. Arsène and I sat down and spoke about football. For me that was the most important thing - having the same vision as the manager. I think that's quite important as a player.

You scored on your debut against Manchester United. What are your memories of that day? I think I had only been in England for a week. I never ever get nervous before a game, but I was that day. I remember the fans singing my name after about 15 minutes and I got really nervous. I was shaking like a leaf when I came on! Scoring made it a bit easier but I was so nervous. I think I was lucky in my career. I scored a few times on my debut. Maybe it's a lucky thing.

 

You joined Arsenal in September so you didn't have a proper pre-season with the team. How difficult was it to settle in a new country and a new club? It was really hard. I came from Sweden and it's a big jump from the Swedish league to the English league, especially physically. A lot of people said to me that I should have gone to Spain or Italy, where the play was quite technical. I had to change my game - I'd never played on the wing in my life, I always played central. There were a lot of new things to adapt to and it took about a season. I felt a bit lost on the wing, I didn't know what to do but thankfully it worked out in the end.

It certainly did, and in the 2001/02 season, everything seemed to go right. When you look back, you must have such fond memories of that time… Yeah, my whole time at Arsenal was amazing but sometimes you have a hot streak and at that time maybe it was highlighted because the club needed it and was going for titles. It was a team effort and it was mostly thanks to my team-mates.

When Robert Pires got injured, you moved to the left for a lot of games and you suddenly clicked there. Did you prefer to play in that position? I always preferred playing on the left but we had to have a balance in the team and I could play on the right as well. But I preferred playing on the left because I could cut inside.

Robert Pires and Thierry Henry

Robert Pires and Thierry Henry

 

Two years later you were part of the invincibles season. What are your memories of that season, and when did you realise how special that team was? For me, winning is everything. I never thought about being invincible until afterwards because everybody talks about it. For me, you win the trophies and that's the most important thing about playing football. But then we became invincible and I didn't think about it at the time, but now it's bigger.

Do you think that season was a natural peak for that team? Was it difficult to relive those highs in the years that followed? It's hard to say. It hasn't happened since and it's not easy to go unbeaten, but I think we felt a bit disappointed about our Champions League records. We lost on away goals a few times when we saw ourselves as favourites before the tournament started. That's probably the hardest thing to take. Arsenal lost the Champions League final in 2006.

Does that go down as one of the most painful games in your memory? Oh yes, by a mile. You have to be a man and take it on the chin, but we really wanted to have that trophy in the cabinet. The new era started when we moved to Emirates Stadium.

You are one of the few players to play at both stadiums. What was it like moving from Highbury? Everybody was extremely scared coming to Highbury - we knew that before they even set foot in the ground. It was new for us and new for the away teams. They got a bit more excited because it was a massive new stadium. We had to get used to it but most people say that it takes one or two years to get used to your new stadium and feel at home. We were very good at Highbury. The club went into a situation where they wanted to go for younger, home-grown players. Some players were leaving too, so there were some changes like that as well.

Thierry Henry kisses the Highbury turf against Wigan

Thierry Henry kisses the Highbury turf against Wigan

 

You had some amazing times at Arsenal and an amazing relationship with the fans. How sad a day was it for you when you had to leave the club? It was a very sad day. I'd been here for a very long time. I still had my contract but made the decision to leave and it still hurts to talk about that decision today. It was what I wanted to do but now I'm happy to be back as an ambassador, and I'm happy that Arsenal are back to winning ways today. We won the FA Cup last season so I think we're going back to where we belong. That's the main thing.

You've had a very interesting career since leaving Arsenal, talk us through it... After West Ham, I felt I needed to do something different. I don't speak about it often but I did a bit with Calvin Klein and fame got a bit much. I didn't really trust anyone and I didn't leave my house because I felt that I couldn't trust people. So I said to my agent that I wanted to do something different. A lot of people said I was mad when I went to America but I wanted something quiet where people don't care who you are. So I went to Seattle, which was probably the best move I made in my life. I had great team-mates, it was a great city and the owners wanted me to promote the game. We did a lot of things outside of football. The Swedish princess came over and we did a lot of charity work for hospitals. That was amazing and we won some cups too. That was great. After that, I missed the passion of football a little bit - that people were angry if you lost, which wasn't so much the case. So I went to Celtic for a little bit. I've never met so many friendly people. Then a team-mate of mine in America knew a manager in Tokyo. I've always loved Japan and Tokyo and said I might go back after the World Cup there. They'd just had a tsunami and the whole country was in a bit of shock. They have a difficult mentality to us - it's difficult to explain. They called me and asked if I could come so that something positive could happen in the country. I didn't understand how big a deal it was but he really wanted me to come and help so I went for six months. I had some great times and we played some good football. Then I retired.

And now you're out of retirement and are going to play in India. Tell us a bit about that because there are some big names set to play there, including Robert Pires... I've been approached a lot of times to come back and play football in different leagues. This is more to promote a totally new league. It's a bit like what I did when I was in America - and I felt like I grew as a human being there. I hope I will do the same thing when I go to India. It's a different culture and for me it's a chance to give something back to football. Our job is to inspire people to play a bit more football and see that we care and that they don't just have to watch it on the television. That's the background.

Freddie Ljungberg visits China

Freddie Ljungberg visits China

 

You have been able, through football, to see a lot of countries and cultures. Is that something that you've always been interested in? I love meeting new people. When I played at Arsenal and we were in Europe, we weren't really allowed to leave the hotel, so you didn't meet anyone or see anything. But whenever I've had an opportunity, be it through football or fashion, to see a place where people have a different view of life or come from a different background, it's something you can learn from. It enriches me and that comes from my parents. They said I could learn from everyone and that I just had to listen.

You've travelled with the team as an ambassador. Has it struck you since you've left how big the club actually is all over the world? I already knew the clubs was massive. It's not really what you think about you travel. When I travel, it's about the values that Arsenal have. When I see other players of a similar stature playing at different teams and you talk about humbleness and how you need to behave, it's not the same everywhere else. That's what I'm most proud of and I think Arsène is a major factor in that. I remember I had been at Arsenal for about a week when Pat Rice came up to me and said that at Arsenal we needed to achieve one title each year. I thought "I've only been here a week!" But I just liked that way of putting pressure on you so you knew what was expected.

How important was it for this group to win the FA Cup? Is it similar to when you won your first trophy in 2002? Well the team had won it in 1998, so most of the players knew how to win, but of course it was great to win. The Club has won so much so the longer it gets without winning something, the more the pressure increases from the outside. I think it brought relief for the players and everyone within the Club to win something. I think we deserved it. Now we've done some shopping in the summer so let's hope we can be even stronger this season and challenge for the Premier League title.

 

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