Talent. What is talent? The dictionary definition is a natural aptitude or skill. By that definition Michael Laudrup was supremely talented. But there is more needed to reach the top of the sport of football than talent alone.
When people talk of the all time greats of the beautiful game they speak of Pele and Maradona, more recently my generation speaks of Zidane and the Brazilian Ronaldo and of course we are now blessed to have Messi and Ronaldo to argue over at every opportunity. You might hear people mention Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Ronaldinho. The debate is endless and yet there is one name who rarely gets a mention.
Yes. Michael Laudrup is a true all time great of the game and yet doesn’t seem to get the recognition his talents merited. When asked who the best player in history was Andres Iniesta was in no doubt “Laudrup” was his response. A player who Luis Figo said was the best he played against and Raul claimed was the best he played with.
For all the love of his peers Laudrup doesn’t seem to be appreciated the way he should be by the footballing public. Perhaps Johan Cruyff could shed some light, he managed Laudrup in the so called “Dream Team” at Barcelona and was often frustrated by his maverick midfielder “One of the most difficult players I have worked with. When he gives 80–90% he is still by far the best, but I want 100%, and he rarely does that” said Cruyff. His then teammate at Barca, Pep Guardiola was shocked that Laudrup never received any individual accolades during his four years there:
The best player in the world, I can’t believe he hasn’t won the title as best player.
Laudrup was born 15 June 1964. He started his playing career at KB in Copenhagen and played 14 times in his debut season, before quickly moving on to Brondby where he was a stand out scoring 15 goals in his first season at the club and winning the 1982 Danish Footballer of the Year. Clubs throughout Europe began to take notice and Liverpool appeared to win the race to sign the young Dane. A bid was accepted and terms agreed but at the last minute Liverpool decided they wanted to change the length of the contract from three to four years, Laudrup, showing great confidence walked away from the deal, unhappy that Liverpool changed the terms, a bold move for a young footballer as Liverpool were one of the world’s leading clubs. It didn’t take long for Juventus to swoop and he signed for around £1 million.
On arrival in Turin, Michael learned he was being sent out on loan to Lazio and he spent two seasons in Rome. He returned to Juve and in his first season won Serie A and the Intercontenental Cup in 1985-86. That season he was once again recognised as Danish Footballer of the Year. He played alongside French legend Michel Platini at Juventus and Platini was in no doubt about Laudrup’s talents:
Michael had everything except for one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough.
In 1989, after six years in Italy, he decided that it was time for a change and moved to Barcelona. His time at the Camp Nou was sensational, winning four consecutive league titles, a Copa Del Ray and Two Spanish Super Cups. His crowning glory came in 1992 winning the European Cup. Barca again reached the 1994 European Cup final and much to everyone’s surprise, manager Johan Cruyff left Laudrup in the stands, a victim of the three foreigners rule. Without Laudrup, Barcelona were crushed 4-0 against AC Milan a decision that Fabio Capello the Milan manager was surprised by:
Laudrup was the guy I feared most, but Cruyff left him out, and that was his mistake.
After being left out of the final in 1994 and with rumours of a falling out with Cruyff, Laudrup decided it was time to move on from Barcelona, nobody could of predicted his destination though.
He controversially signed for Barcelona’s bitter rivals Real Madrid, the talk at the time was of trying to get back at Cruyff but Michael reflects on that time and insists that he could see a drop off at Barcelona just wanted to keep winning at the highest level. His assessment proved correct as in his first season at the Santiago Bernabeu Real Madrid won the league title marking the fifth league title in a row for Laudrup. He only played for Real Madrid for two seasons yet in 2002 Marca ran a poll to determine the greatest player in the club’s illustrious history and Laudrup was voted the 12th best ever for Madrid.
During his final season with Barcelona, Laudrup was instrumental in a 5-0 destruction of Real Madrid, a hugely significant victory for the Catalans. The following season for his new club, he helped mastermind a 5-0 victory for Los Blancos against his former team. A stunning achievement to feature on the winning side in both games for such fierce rivals. Despite crossing the divide it is a testament to his talents that he is so highly thought of at both the Spanish giants.
In 1999, he was named the best foreign player to have played in Spain the previous 25 years (1974-1999) and anyone who watched him during his time in Spain would struggle to argue against such an accolade.
After leaving Spain he joined Vissel Kobe and then Ajax Amsterdam where he would add another league title to his impressive haul before calling time on a wonderful playing career.
Michael came from a family with real footballing pedigree – his father Finn played professionally in Austria and Denmark and was capped 19 times by Denmark. Finn’s brother in law and Michaels uncle Ebbe Skovdahl also played for Brondby and went on to manage them along with Benfica and Aberdeen where he is fondly remembered. Michaels two sons Mads and Andreas both forged out decent football careers for themselves playing in the Danish league and both represented Denmark at youth level.
And then of course you have his younger brother Brian, a supremely talented winger who played for Bayern Munich, was a European Cup winner with AC Milan and finished as high as sixth place in the 1992 Ballon d’Or. Brian found his home in Glasgow with Scottish giants Rangers where he would win several league titles and domestic cups and he was named the greatest non Scot to ever play for the club. Brian remains the most outstanding player to have ever graced Scottish football.
Both brothers starred for Denmark and amassed an incredible 186 caps between them. Unfortunately for Michael, he fell out with the manager Richard Moller Nielsen prior to the 1992 European Championships and Denmark went on to shock the footballing world and win the tournament inspired by the younger Laudrup brother.
By the time the 1998 World Cup came around the brothers were pondering international retirement and they went out in style, both starring as Denmark lost narrowly 3-2 to eventual runners up Brazil in the quarter final and both Michael and Brian were named in the FIFA All Star Team of the Tournament. Both the Laudrup boys were named as two of the greatest living players of all time as part of the FIFA 125 ceremony and Michael was rightfully named the greatest ever Danish footballer in 2006.
Michael went on to become a manager and in typical Laudrup style, he succeeded, winning the Danish League and two domestic cups with Brondby and famously guiding Swansea City to the English League Cup at Wembley. He also had spells managing Spartak Moscow, Getafe, Real Mallorca, Lekhwiya and Al Rayyan.
Johan Cruyff thought he understood the enigma of Michael Laudrup and was once quoted as saying:
Had Michael been born in a poor ghetto in Brazil or Argentina with the ball being his only way out of poverty he would today be recognised as the biggest genius of the game ever, he had all the abilities to reach it but lacked the ghetto instinct, which could have driven him there.
Whether that is exactly right we will never know but what can’t be denied is that Laudrup was a once in a generation talent. It is perhaps best to let the great Franz Beckenbauer have the final say on where Laudrup sits on the pantheon of greatness:
Pele was the best in the 60s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s and Laudrup in the 90s.
High praise indeed and in my mind at least secures Michaels spot among the all time greats of the game.