For all their astonishing talent, would Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane have left quite the same mark on the game had they missed their respective nation's finest hours? Or does genius radiate no matter how many trophies can be totted up at the end of a player’s career?
A quick look over the case of Michael Laudrup suggests skill will always speak louder than silverware. For while Denmark’s greatest-ever player sat out the team’s UEFA EURO 1992 conquest, he continues to be regarded with the kind of reverence his more successful compatriots can only envy.
Franz Beckenbauer, while watching the attacking midfielder in his immaculate pomp, said: “In the 1960s, the best player was Pele; in the 1970s, it was Cruyff; in the 1980s, it was Maradona; and in the 1990s, it’s Laudrup.”
Nor could anyone deny that Laudrup merited acclaim, the Frederiksberg native having been burdened with the weight of his own family’s history even before lacing his first pair of boots. He and younger brother Brian began their careers in the considerable shadow cast by their father Finn, a former international, not to mention their uncle, successful coach Ebbe Skohvdal. Michael, nevertheless, fast developed a steely determination to succeed on his own terms. At the age of 13 he turned down the chance to move to Dutch giants Ajax, preferring to make the grade in his homeland before travelling overseas.
I played against Maradona, Platini and Baggio, but the one player capable of the most incredible skills was Michael Laudrup.
With that objective in mind, he followed his father to Kjobenhavns Boldklub, forerunner of current capital outfit FC Copenhagen, and from there he joined Brondby, where he was voted Danish Player of the Year at just 18. The youngster now felt ready to export his gifts abroad, but the force of his principles shone through again when another legendary club came calling.
“I reached an agreement over a three-year contract with officials from Liverpool,” he recalled a few years after hanging up his boots. “In my head, the deal was done. Then a few days later they came back with the same offer but for four years, saying that I was very young and needed time to develop. I was disappointed and decided not to join them. We’d signed nothing, but an agreement is an agreement. People should stick to what they decide.”
His disappointment did not last for long. Serie A titans Juventus knew exactly what they wanted and they leapt at the opportunity to bring the Scandinavian prodigy on board in June 1983. Laudrup was equally delighted with the deal, but his youth counted against him at a time when teams could only field two foreign players.
With Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek already in their ranks, Juve loaned their latest acquisition out to Lazio, and he proved an instant hit with the newly promoted club, hitting pinpoint passes and precise free-kicks while helping himself to a healthy batch of goals during his two seasons in Rome. When Boniek departed Turin, La Vecchia Signora did not have to search far and wide for his replacement.
Laudrup took over from the Polish legend alongside Platini, winning the Intercontinental Cup in 1986, but it was with Juventus that he began to be dogged by the reputation that has almost come to define him: that of a footballing genius who never quite fulfilled his potential.
Roberto Galia, a former Italy international who played with the great Dane during his final year in Turin, commented: “I played against Maradona, Platini and [Roberto] Baggio, but the one player capable of the most incredible skills was Michael Laudrup."
Platini added: “He was one of the greatest talents of all time. He was the best player in the world during training, but he never exploited all his qualities on the pitch. Michael had everything apart from one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough.”
If a certain altruism lay at the heart of Laudrup’s game, it was precisely that quality which brought him on to the radar of then Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff, who saw him as the perfect supply route for Bulgarian goal machine Hristo Stoichkov. With the Dutch mastermind on the bench, Laudrup casting spells in midfield and Stoichkov adding the finishing touches, Barça at last made the leap from big name to continental powerhouse. Together, they won four La Liga titles and a European Cup between 1990 and 1994, all attained with a swagger that earned them the tag of the 'Dream Team'.
Despite those successes, Laudrup could not escape his habit of missing out on the big occasions, and he watched the 1994 UEFA Champions League final from the sidelines as AC Milan recorded a 4-0 win that was as surprising as it was emphatic. “Laudrup was the player I feared the most and Cruyff made the mistake of leaving him on the bench,” explained Milan coach Fabio Capello after the game.
That showpiece snub provoked similar sentiments to those which had led Laudrup to turn down Ajax and Liverpool, and the Danish playmaker reacted by signing for Barcelona’s sworn enemy, Real Madrid, turning his back on the affections of the Camp Nou faithful. “It wasn’t a question of revenge,” he nevertheless insisted. “My time at Barça was over, as was the Dream Team. If I left for Madrid, it’s because I wanted to play for a team capable of challenging for the title without leaving Spain.”
The move proved a shrewd calculation on that score, with Real taking the league crown in 1994/95, and Laudrup’s revenge was complete when he played a starring role in a humbling 5-0 Clásico win – a year after Los Azulgrana had dispatched their eternal rivals by the same scoreline. Laudrup’s performance against his old team was one of the finest of his entire career, and it included an assist for one of Ivan Zamorano’s three goals. The Chilean striker later explained: “What was the reason I scored so many goals for Madrid? Laudrup!”
With two years in the Spanish capital under his belt, and then aged 32, Laudrup must have imagined himself nearing retirement when he signed for Vissel Kobe in Japan’s newly established J.League. No fewer than 15 goals in the 1996/97 campaign convinced him he still had plenty to offer in Europe, however, and he opted for one last adventure on the Old Continent. With a neat nod to his past, he agreed terms with Ajax, the club he had declined to join two decades earlier, and ended his career after clinching the Dutch title.
Still, as the curtain fell on his playing days, the one winners’ medal missing from Laudrup’s collection fed into his legend as much as all the silverware he amassed along the way. The elegant schemer contested three UEFA European Championships (1984, 1988 and 1996), won the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 and was an integral member of the Danish Dynamite side that seduced football lovers across the globe during their maiden FIFA World Cup™ in 1986. He even scored a magnificent goal in the 6-1 defeat of Uruguay during that tournament, but all those contributions are overshadowed by his decision to retire from the international stage during qualifying for EURO 1992.
In the 1960s, the best player was Pele; in the 1970s, it was Cruyff; in the 1980s, it was Maradona; and in the 1990s, it’s Laudrup.
Laudrup withdrew from the Denmark set-up in the wake of a 2-0 loss to Yugoslavia, disagreeing with the team’s tactics and refusing to represent his country again while coach Richard Moller Nielsen remained at the helm. It proved a rash decision, with Denmark invited to feature at the continental showcase after Yugoslavia, their qualifying group winners, were barred from competing.
The rest is history. Moller Nielsen put together a last-minute squad by calling players back from their holidays and his team travelled to Sweden as rank outsiders, only to stun the watching world by storming to glory. It was Denmark’s crowning achievement in international football, and their greatest-ever player had missed out on the festivities.
Responding to intense public pressure, Laudrup backtracked the following year, returning to the national team despite the continued reign of Moller Nielsen. “I didn’t want to go back on a decision I’d made very firmly, but at the same time I found myself wanting to play with them more and more,” he said.
“Myself and the coach were able to find common ground. The team had lacked discipline and I didn’t feel capable of doing what he expected of me by becoming their leader. But I became a leader at Barça, the orchestrator of the team’s play, and it’s a role that now suits me well.”
Laudrup went on to win the last of his 104 caps against Brazil in the quarter-finals at France 1998. The European underdogs pushed the reigning champions to the limit before succumbing 3-2, and after the final whistle their defeated captain made the announcement each and every one of his compatriots must have feared the most. “That was the last match of my career,” he stated. “But it was also one of the best, if not the best.”
Had the Danish prince collected his crown at Sweden 1992, he would surely have spoken differently.
Did You Know?
Michael Laudrup is the favourite player of another iconic Barcelona midfielder, Andres Iniesta.
Football is the Laudrup family business: his father, Finn, was a Danish international; his mother, Lone, is the sister of successful coach Ebbe Skovdahl; Brian, his brother, helped Denmark win UEFA EURO 1992; and his sons, Mads and Andreas, are both youth internationals.
Laudrup's superb goal against Uruguay at Mexico 1986, scored after dribbling past several defenders, inspired Copenhagen Royal Opera soloist Guido Paevatalu to pen an operatic air in his honour: The Laudrup Song.
Although his compatriot Allan Simonsen remains the only Danish player to have won the Ballon d’Or, in 1977, Laudrup was officially crowned the country’s best-ever player by the Danish Football Association in November 2006.
The Laudrup brothers could have faced each other in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final, but both fell foul of the rule limiting teams to three foreigners. Savicevic, Boban and Desailly were picked ahead of Brian for AC Milan, while Stoichkov, Koeman and Romario kept Michael out of the Barcelona line-up.