Hyderabad: A few players play football to live, and a few live to play. Fredrik Ljungberg is perhaps the latter. His entire life, since he was five-years-old, has revolved around football. He has played for Halmstads BK, Arsenal, West Ham United and in American and Japanese leagues, and has had the honour of representing his country, Sweden.
He was at the peak of his career while playing with Arsenal’s legendary Invincibles, who went 49 consecutive games unbeaten. Now, the Swede is in India for three months to promote the Indian Super League because he sees a real passion for the ‘beautiful game’ here. As he sits for a chat with us, the warm and humble player calmly reminisces his past, what attracted him to football, his reign at Arsenal with The Invincibles, a team that went 49 consecutive games unbeaten, his modelling days and his current life as Arsenal’s ambassador and his family.
Freddie was the apple of everyone’s eye when he launched Arsenal’s new Puma kit recently in Bengaluru. He admits that he did not expect to see the mad fans, who chanted Arsenal anthems incessantly, with some having come all the way from Mumbai.
“I’ve been travelling around Asia for a while. It gets crazy with 5,000 people waiting at the airport. So, you never know what’s going to happen,” says the player who represented Sweden when he was only 15. Freddie was recently in China and Dubai as well, and has been posting pictures from his travels on Twitter and Instagram. Meeting people from different countries, he believes, adds to his learning experience. “Back when I was at Arsenal, there were 14 different nationalities in one team, and I felt there is so much to learn from each country as a human being. It’s great for me to be here in India, because I see a real passion for football and I get to learn,” he explains.
Speaking of passion, his own love for football originated as a toddler. “My father, who used to play football, would take me with him everyday to the field. The kit-man looked after me; he changed my nappies while I sat watching my dad,” he laughs. “When I was five, my parents wanted to move to a bigger city, because my dad got a job there. They asked me if I’d be OK with it, (of course, it wasn’t up to me, but they were just being polite) and I said, “Only if you take me to a proper football club.” So I was in a club (Halmstads BK) when I was five, when other kids usually start at seven,” he adds.
Starting a few years earlier than usual gave him an edge as Freddie had chances to play at Bayern Munich and Barcelona when he was 16 and 18, but he “wasn’t ready.” Then Arsenal came along, and he played alongside legends like Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Partick Vieira and trained under Arsene Wenger for 10 years (1998 – 2007), creating history in North London.
“Bergkamp was perhaps the best player I’ve played with. And of course, Arsene taught me a lot. Back in England, many players got arrogant as they grew popular, but Arsene always taught us to be humble. He taught me to treat everyone equally and I still hold onto those lessons,” says the winger.
But the Swede hasn’t only showed off his skills on the football field. He’s effortlessly handsome, with a strong jawline, naturally pouting lips, mesmerising blue eyes, and an impeccable body which makes him a perfect model. He is known widely, especially among girls, for his photoshoot with Calvin Klein, where he poses in his underwear, showing off his neat six pack abs.
“It took them three months to convince me to do that shoot. At first I said, “Pose in my underwear? No chance!” but then they made me comfortable, the pictures came out well and their sales increased 25 per cent. So it worked out well,” he shrugs. Ask him how he has maintained his body, considering he retired in August 2012, he says he has been practicing martial arts four times a week.
“As a player, you miss that buzz you get when you walk out to a full stadium. In my opinion, when you do martial arts, sparring against someone who wants to hurt you gives you that adrenaline rush,” he says.
Before coming to Asia, the fashionable footballer tied the knot with his long-term girlfriend and Tottenham fan, Natalie Foster, at London’s Natural History Museum. But he isn’t complaining about leaving her behind at home. “I get to be with my family a lot more now than I used to while playing football,” he explains. After a few years, however, he reveals that he may take up some managerial jobs too! For now, The Gunner, who thought Manchester United was his toughest opponent back in his heyday, plans to train kids in India and give them the guidance they require....