As Euro 2016 approaches and the current round of international fixtures has everyone speculating about who will be victorious in France this year, I’ve fallen back into the same thought-pattern that, for me, precedes every international tournament. An avid consumer of all things football, my recent reading has included no shortage of countdowns, reflection pieces and reviews of European Championships gone by. One such story that has always fascinated me is the story of Denmark, the Scandanavian nation who went from failing to qualify for Euro ’92 to winning the tournament after gaining a place at the finals at the expense of Yugoslavia, a nation in the midst of civil war at the time of the tournament. More poignant, perhaps, is the fact the Balkan state had defeated the Danes 2-0 during the qualifiers.
But there was one notable absence from that triumphant Danish side. In 1990, following differences with then manager Richard Moller Nielsen, arguably the greatest Danish player ever to grace the game, Michael Laudrup, along with his brother Brian and Liverpool hero Jan Molby, quit the national side. While Brian would return to the side within two years and become an integral part of their Euro victory, Jan Molby would never play on the international stage again. Michael, rumoured not to rate his compatriots’ chances at the tournament, chose not to return to play in the finals in Sweden, eventually making his return in the summer of 1993, only for the side to fail to qualify for the World Cup at USA ’94. Laudrup no doubt regrets the decision not to rejoin the side earlier but there are those who argue his presence may have meant the unlikely victory that did occur when Denmark beat Germany 2-0 in Stockholm that year would never have occurred at all. Journalist Jan Kjeldtoft, while being interviewed about the death of Moller in 2014, said of Laudrup,
“We probably wouldn’t have won the title with him in the team. Without any doubt, he was one of the best players in the world at that time. But the way the team played football was very much different. It was defending and counterattacking. With him among the eleven, I think we would have lost a lot of tackles and maybe we wouldn’t have won. So it’s a strange story because you can have the best player in the world and become the best team without him.“
What’s interesting is that Kjeldtoft acknowledges in his statement that, in his opinion and, indeed, that of many others, Laudrup was one of the best players in the world. A playmaker full of pace and dribbling skills, with an ability to finish too, he could split the defence just as easily with the ball at his own feet as he could with a pass to a teammate. But ask most people to name their favourite players of the last 30 years and, certainly in the case of my age group of people in their mid to late 20s, I think you would struggle to find many people who would name Michael Laudrup among them.
I’ll be 100% honest and admit that Laudrup was not a name I initially associated with Michael. Growing up in Glasgow, I was mesmerised by brother Brian as he tore apart defences with his lightning speed and killer delivery as part of a dominant Rangers team who won 9 consecutive titles throughout the 1990s under Walter Smith. In fact, the first time I realised there was another Laudrup was when my brother and I, in what would become a yearly tradition, were allowed to purchase an imitation football shirt (a ‘fake’) during our summer holidays. While I plumped for the gaudy luminous yellow Borussia Dortmund kit emblazoned with Andreas Moller’s name and the number 10, my confusion was apparent when my brother was about to opt for a Real Madrid kit with Laudrup on the back. ‘But he plays for Rangers, doesn’t he?’, I thought. And then it clicked. My fascination with Michael Laudrup had begun.
When I started looking into him as a player, which was around 1997, I couldn’t believe a player with the apparent CV Laudrup had would have escaped my attention for as long as he did. Though he started his career in his native Denmark at KB and Brondby, he would go on to play for some of the most illustrious clubs in world football. A six year stint in Italy saw him play for Lazio and Juventus, where he won an Intercontinental Cup in 1985, followed by the Serie A title in 1986, marking the first top flight league championship of his career. He would then, of course, move on to Spain, where, in terms of trophies, he would have the most successful period of his career. Winning four league titles and a European Cup for Barcelona in a team including the likes of Romario and Ronald Koeman and led by the visionary that was the late Johan Cruyff, he would call the Nou Camp home for 6 years in total. It was a rumoured falling out with Cruyff, however, that would lead Laudrup to make the controversial move across the divide to play for rivals Real Madrid, where he would add another league title to his haul in 1995. Many claimed Laudrup’s decision to make the move was motivated by revenge but he was quick to rubbish this when quizzed on it by Sky Sports,
“People say I wanted to go to Real Madrid just to get revenge. I say revenge from what? I’ve had a perfect time; five fantastic years here [at Barcelona]. I went to Madrid because they were so hungry to win, and they had four or five players who went to the World Cup. I said this would be perfect; new coach, new players, and hungry to win.”
His later years would see him play a short spell in Japan, before adding to the role call of footballing royalty on his CV by finishing his club career as part of an Eredivisie-winning Ajax team in 1998. A swan song with the national team in the World Cup at France ’98 would prove successful also, with him and brother Brian helping them to the quarter finals and both earning a place in FIFA’s All Star team for the tournament. Michael, himself, surpassed 100 caps for his country that summer too.
So, with all those achievements, why is it that I knew little of him before a confusing fake-kit buying incident in the Canary islands? There’s no doubt Laudrup has many accolades to his name. As well as the trophies listed above, he’s had numerous individual prizes. As well as being officially named Denmark’s Greatest Ever Player and UEFA’s Greatest Danish Player of the last 50 years in 2003 (calm down, Peter), the myriad of quotes you’ll find from fellow professionals praising his ability are notable in the effusiveness of their praise.
And yet, so often his genius goes unspoken, unremembered by those who will happily rhyme off names such as Cruyff, Zidane, Ronaldo and others when discussing the greatest ever players to grace the game. Perhaps it’s the fact he played for a relatively low-profile national side and contrived to miss out on their greatest ever achievement. Perhaps it’s because he never quite achieved the greatest individual accolade in world football, the Balon D’Or unlike those listed above. Perhaps it’s the smattering of fall-outs and footballing controversies through his career. Perhaps it’s simply my own ignorance and you’re all reading this thinking I’m an idiot. Or maybe, and I really hope this isn’t the case, it’t the mere fact that he didn’t grace British shores that mean he goes somewhat under-appreciated by the British footballing public at large.
Whatever the reason, it can’t be denied that Michael Laudrup is one of the greatest talents to grace the game and, whether this is well recognised or not, he should always be part of the always-fun debate down the pub about the best players in the history of football. I’ve left a video of some of his best bits for any of you who might not have seen much of his play up until now but perhaps it’s best to leave it to one of the best players of my generation, Andres Iniesta, to sum it up;
“Who is the best player in history? Laudrup.”
Can’t really say much more, can you?