Ten years ago, a Swedish Calvin Klein model crowned a distinguished career in front of the camera with the receipt of a prestigious and much-coveted award.
Vittsjö-born Fredrik Ljungberg, a noted specialist in underwear shoots, was voted by readers of highbrow quotidian The Sun as “The Sexiest Player in the Premier League”. The victory was a tour-de-force for this chiselled doyen of male mannequins, the culmination of a glorious period in the limelight and recognition of his peerless dedication to the cause of bodily perfection.
Over the preceding years, cheekbones hoisted higher than a Chris Waddle penalty and an abdomen as finely sculpted as that of a Greek god had catapulted Freddie rapidly to the pinnacle of his trade. He became a household name, with his torso, groin and occasionally face gracing billboards across the world.
But, despite his success, life wasn’t always a breeze for the Scandinavian pinup.
“It sounds so cocky and I will not whine, but if, for example, I’d go to a night club, girls would come up and grab my crotch,” he revealed to Swedish paper Di in a heartbreaking exposé. “Just like that. It was happening everywhere. They came from behind, side, pulled and tugged at me. The worst part was that you could not do a damned thing about it. When I angrily removed my hands, people just laughed. Some people thought that I could blame myself, I had done Calvin Klein and played for a top team…”
Arguably, Ljungberg’s side-job as a professional footballer for the aforementioned “top team” may have ultimately hindered his modelling career, but there is undeniable proof he was very good at it. Almost a decade after emerging triumphant in the Sun poll, the Swede was acknowledged as being the eleventh-greatest player in the history of Arsenal FC, a modest London-based outfit who had repeatedly insisted on his participation in their activities despite being aware of his obligations to the world of fashion.
We all know the story of Freddie the globetrotting model; here’s the lesser-known story of Fredrik the footballer.
When Ljungberg and his jawline turned up at Highbury in September 1998, very few in the UK had heard of him. But those were the days when Arsène Wenger’s reputation as a finder and polisher of hidden footballing diamonds was approaching its peak. He’d already succeeded in transforming the likes of Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira from inconnus into international stalwarts and believed he’d spotted similar potential in Ljungberg.
And he was right.
The Swedish midfielder swiftly won the hearts of both his manager and the club’s fans with a unique brand of aggressive, box-to-box play. Within months of his arrival, the supporters were entirely smitten, observing with rapt attention as Ljungberg approached each game with an almost manic sense of urgency, haring about the pitch with a barely restrained fervour.
When in defence, he sought the ball with the hungry air of a truffle-hog pounding through a forest, the scent of a tuber in its nostrils. In attack, he was pure zealot, a mohawked kamikaze casting himself with abandon at the opposition. Onlookers swooned as they watched him chop at an opponent’s heels and win back possession twenty yards from his own goal, before gaping in awe as he charged the length of the field on the counter, smoke pluming angrily from his heels.
Yet there was an element of control about Ljungberg’s play, a ruthless internal calm that belied the sheer ferocity of his running. He could finish with a coldness that surprised you: shots on the run curled with precision into the bottom corner; dinks over and around onrushing keepers; low, skimming drives rasped in from the edge of the box. Such a proficient and composed finisher did he become that he ended up with 72 goals for Arsenal, many of which arose from his knack of zipping beyond the forwards to get on the end of crosses, touches and through balls from Pires, Bergkamp or Henry.
But it wasn’t just in front of goal that Ljungberg showed his poise. There were madcap dribbles and rapid dragbacks carried out with arms thrashing and legs splaying, yet with the ball remaining throughout nestled safely on his instep. There were raking passes, glancing clips that bisected backlines and a variety of improvised first-time nudges, all executed with a precision that seemed at odds with his often-frantic movements.
Ljungberg was busy, a harum-scarum one-man hive of activity. But so often, it was his technique that punished his foes: he had that rare ability to paralyse opponents with a flash of skill or flair for which they weren’t prepared. The sense of perpetual motion that he projected sometimes gave the impression of a certain lack of refinement in comparison with some of his more ostentatiously gifted team-mates, but this served only as a distraction: those who underestimated his talent usually paid for their complacence.
And so, while that famous 2007 Sun accolade remains unquestionably his finest achievement, it should be acknowledged that Freddie managed to become one of the most enduring icons of the Invincibles era, not just for his committed play but also for his endearing quirks: the gaudy fauxhawk, the tattoos, the easygoing charm. He was also one of the most effective Premier League players of his era, an unassuming, reliable figure who combined physique, hard work and talent to cement his place at the heart of – perhaps – the competition’s greatest ever team.