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Football: Ljungberg retired but still packing a punch

Left: Freddie Ljungberg promoting next year's Arsenal in Sydney tour. Below: Alison Edmonds and husband Chris, with their son Freddie, who was born in 2004 and named after Ljungberg. That was the season in which the Invincibles won the Premier League
Freddie Ljungberg promoting next year's Arsenal in Sydney tour. PHOTO COURTESY OF DESTINATION NSW
Left: Freddie Ljungberg promoting next year's Arsenal in Sydney tour. Below: Alison Edmonds and husband Chris, with their son Freddie, who was born in 2004 and named after Ljungberg. That was the season in which the Invincibles won the Premier League
Alison Edmonds and husband Chris, with their son Freddie, who was born in 2004 and named after Ljungberg. That was the season in which the Invincibles won the Premier League by 11 points and made the semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup. They also reached the Champions League quarter-finals. ST PHOTO: LIN XINYI

Ex-Gunner Ljungberg practises MMA and the U-15 coach is still a huge draw off the pitch

"This is Freddie," Arsenal fan Alison Edmonds said as she motioned to her son. The 12-year-old is named after Freddie Ljungberg, the retired Gunners midfielder they had flown from Brisbane to Sydney to meet two weeks ago.

The Swede might have made his name halfway round the world while playing for the North London club between 1997 and 2008, but his fame knows no borders.

Close to 100 supporters from Australia's six states converged on the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney to attend a fan engagement session with the Arsenal legend last fortnight.

"We love you Freddie because you've got no hair. We love you Freddie because you're everywhere. We love you Freddie, you're Arsenal through and through," they belted out to the tune of Can't Take My Eyes Off You by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as he entered the ballroom.

Asked by the moderator about his reception, Ljungberg, in New South Wales (NSW) to promote next year's Arsenal in Sydney tour, quipped that it was only decent.

  • His dream is to manage Arsenal

    Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg touched on several topics during his visit to New South Wales to promote next year's Arsenal in Sydney Tour. Here are his thoughts:

    HIS MANAGERIAL AMBITIONS

    "I have a dream to one day coach Arsenal but I need to prove myself somewhere else. I may have to go to a mid-table club to prove my colours and show I'm good."

    REPEAT OF THE INVINCIBLES

    On whether another Premier League team can go unbeaten over a season like Ljungberg and Co - known as the Invincibles - did in 2004: "Every record is to be broken. I don't think it's the easiest thing to do. But I hope someone will break it because that's what should happen with records."

    INVINCIBLES VERSUS OUTSIDERS

    On whether he agrees with former Arsenal team-mate Lauren that the Invincibles' season was a greater feat than 5,000-1 outsiders Leicester City winning the Premier League title this year: "I don't rate anything like that. I don't like to compare things. I think what they did was great. For me personally, when we went invincible, my main thing was to win the league. I never thought the rest was going to be as big as it is today. For me, it's all about trophies."

    ARSENAL'S TRANSFERS

    On Arsenal failing to sign targets Jamie Vardy, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luis Suarez in recent seasons: "I don't think that the club go out and say these are our top targets. It's mostly the media that talks about it. If they miss or don't get someone, the media thinks it's more important than the club think. But I think when (Arsenal manager) Arsene (Wenger) wants somebody badly, he will go for them. Hopefully he will get them. There are a lot of clubs in the world, maybe another club is offering twice the salary or they have some other agenda."

    NORTH LONDON RIVALS TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

    "They've developed, unfortunately, quite well. They work as a team, they work really hard and for each other, and they also showed last season that they are now a force to be reckoned with."

    Lin Xinyi

He would be forgiven for being more accustomed to 60,000 fans singing his name. Yet being adored and recognised is not something he misses since he officially retired in 2012 after a spell at Japanese outfit Shimizu S-Pulse.

For someone whose image - in just his Calvin Klein underwear - was once plastered across billboards from Taipei to Times Square, Ljungberg makes a concerted effort to conceal himself from any extra attention.

During his whirlwind three-day visit to Sydney, he often donned a military-style cap and shades in between photo shoots at famous attractions. The 39-year-old would wait in quiet areas until the cameraman and videographer were fully set up before coming into focus.

Over lunch at the Leura Garage after one such shoot in the Blue Mountains, Ljungberg conceded that he gets "embarrassed" when eyes are trained on him in crowded places.

But he showed first-hand how he has learnt to deal with it over the years. Just as quickly as he used to turn defence into attack, Ljungberg turned on the charm whenever he met a fan. It did not matter that he was jet-lagged, with a double espresso and a soy latte to perk him up despite getting just three hours of sleep in 48 hours.

One waiter served up a question with every dish and requested that Ljungberg autograph a Pele book at the end of the meal. His colleagues had jerseys and boots signed, photos taken, hands shaken.

Outside the restaurant, an Arsenal fan waited patiently by our minibus with multiple jerseys. They were all transformed into memorabilia by the player who scored 72 goals in 328 appearances for the Gunners.

Retirement was not always easy for the two-time Premier League champion and three-time FA Cup winner. It took him months to find something that could replicate the rush of adrenaline he got during a match - mixed martial arts. These days, the only times he feels as alive as he did on the pitch are when he boxes - and is about to get hit.

That is not the only reason he boxes. The father of two likens the sport to a chess match - one has to think two or three moves ahead. Sometimes he allows his opponent to hit him at a certain angle just so he can counter-punch.

Known for his quick feet and quick thinking, the Swede is now plotting Arsenal's long-term success as the coach of their Under-15 team. He is relishing the opportunity to influence teenagers at an important stage of their development and "the Arsenal way" is central to his coaching philosophy.

"I always want to play offensive and nice football," Ljungberg told The Straits Times this month in an interview arranged by Destination NSW and Arsenal.

"Of course to win a football game, you need to play as a team. You need to defend well. There are a lot of attributes today to win trophies. But the main thing is everybody should know what they are doing on the field and hopefully we can try as well to entertain the fans."

To get the best out of his players, he has turned to books on psychology and sees the value in interacting with the boys on a social level. Finding out what makes them tick and how their families are doing are as important as being a student of the game.

Ljungberg watched every game of the recently concluded European Championship. And by watching he really meant pausing and dissecting.

"You become a bit boring when you become a coach," the former Sweden international said, smiling.

"You rewind and see what they did there and what was wrong with that, and try to analyse how certain teams play out from the back, what system they use and where they put players."

Ljungberg could hardly have been described as boring in his playing days. In fact, he was often labelled flamboyant by the British media, an image that was accentuated when he wore a red mohawk to Premier League games.

Now, he sports a bald look with a salt-and-pepper stubble. But he remains a fan favourite.

Edmonds, 41, said: "He always gave 100 per cent and believed in himself. And he's always, of course, pleasing to the eye."

If her son Freddie grows up to be a spitting image of Ljungberg, there would be no complaints.

VIDEO ONLINE

Watch the interview with Freddie Ljungberg http://str.sg/4S4x

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Retired but still packing a punch'. Print Edition | Subscribe