Legends of Club Football: Michael Laudrup
In the Shakespearean era, Hamlet was that one Prince of Denmark who stood out from the rest. The legendary saga of his immaculately royal stature reflected a sense of pain, insanity, trauma and disbelief that etched its place in the hearts of the literary purists forever. Likewise, when the modern football era bestowed the Danish land with another Prince oozing with an infectious charm and unrivalled calibre, the football-crazy Danish contingent accepted it as a sign of a seismic historic revival. Michael Laudrup’s first few glimpses of genius on the field didn’t just elevate the surrounding hysteria but also opened a door of rather intriguing prospects.
The moment this Dane arrived on the grandest of all stages, he didn’t just assume the weight of expectations but also consumed it to fuel his ambitious strides. So for many quadrants of Danish football enthusiasts, it was only fitting that their most capable torch-bearer went on leave his mark of excellence on several generations ahead. A precocious young starlet that left his trail from Brondby to Barcelona with his creative genius and unparalleled equanimity, Michael Laudrup, on a football field, embodied a prodigious artist painting his sumptuous masterpiece.
Hailing from a renowned football family, Laudrup already had a lot to prove before he had even touched a football. His predecessors held a marquee identity in Danish football, and it was understandable when he chose to sketch his learning curve in the same Brondby colours that his father and uncle wore for most of their respective careers. Winning the Danish Player of the Year in the first couple of seasons and already being rumoured to have featured on the wish-list of the European elites, things could not have been more favourable for Michael. Not just the Laudrups, but Danish football on the whole was counting on this gutsy playmaker to exhibit his footballing genius across Europe – and the moment wasn’t too far away from his grasp either.
Young Michael could have been straightaway slotted into the all-conquering Liverpool side of the 80s, had there not been any hiccups in the contract negotiation. They wanted him on a long-term contract. Yet, his courage to take the tougher decisions at a tender age by refusing the Merseyside giants and signing for Juventus showed how confident he was to succeed in any condition. And when we look back, he lost little in the bargain, having grown under the shadow of the charismatic Michel Platini and being fortunate enough to face then Napoli’s one man army – Diego Maradona.
“Michael had everything except for one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough.” – Michel Platini
He revelled in being the pivotal creating element of what was a promising Juve side that was touted to be the producer of the most beautiful football in the league. Although it was a pity that Laudrup could inspire them to no more than one Serie A title in his four-year stint, he did learn the value of striving hard to redeem any kind of appreciation out of a team effort – something he could’ve hardly managed in trophy-laden periods at Liverpool.
What he missed in his then blooming career was an early taste of winning champagne. Despite a title win with the Turin club, the ambitious side of Laudrup always asked a lot more of himself. Players always talk about how difficult it is to move on from a club and adapt to a new one, yet Laudrup relished these opportunities. He, unlike most of the players of his generation, timed his career to a limit where footballing interests didn’t mix with the club culture and its inherent sentiments. He believed that his strongest connect was with delightful yet prolific football that would appreciate his skill-set. And Johan Cruyff’s project in the early 90s at Barcelona promised just that!
Johan Cruyff’s attempt to present his seductive version of the game at Barcelona needed an on-field director who could pull the right strings at the most opportunistic moment. He soon realized that he was looking for another Cruyff to run his lavish setup and in Laudrup he found his closest embodiment. Laudrup didn’t just kill games with his polished range of passes but also formed a never-seen-before chemistry with the Catalan attacking juggernaut. If there was any team comparable to clockwork precision in modern football, it was the Barcelona side of the early 90s – and Laudrup was at the heart of what turned out to be a glorious spell for the side. There were few adjectives to describe their rampaging 5-0 rout of Madrid and even fewer when we look back at the club’s first European Cup triumph at Wembley. It was Laudrup’s character, to put his team’s interests ahead of an individual’s, that denied him the amount of credit that he deserved, yet few could argue his influence on what was the Blaugrana’s most potent winning-machine ever.
Laudrup’s biggest achievement in that stint was the fact that his contributions weren’t just underlined by the number of trophies his side won. He displayed the uncanny ability to switch on his best when the side demanded it, which is not something that can be taught.
There were times when in need of a goal in the dying stages of the game, Stoichkov would yell at Laudrup to shed some of his stardust to enliven the arena; and more often than not, the Dane delivered with his trademark aplomb. A shimmy, a close dribble and then what we call in a magician’s lingo, the prestige, Laudrup delivered his version of a spell in the most effortless of manners. He would slip an almost ideally weighted ball past the defenders for the striker to score and taste the glory. For Laudrup, a few pats on the back and a deafening roar of approval from the fans were enough to assure himself that he had still got it. Not that he ever craved for the spotlight; it’s just that he never thought he deserved more than the usual credit for what he called his routine on the field.
“From more than hundred goals that I scored I’m sure that over 50 were assisted by Michael. To play with him was extremely easy. We found each other by intuition on the field and found common football language. Look at Ivan Zamorano. Laudrup went there (Real) and Zamorano is a goal-scorer. Sometimes I envy Ivan for the passes he receives. Passes on foot after you accelerated. They make things easy and find the right solutions. For them is simple, for the opponent – unthinkable. Phenomenal! – Hristo Stoichkov, Laudrup’s teammate at Barcelona.
Yet, in what sounds like an almost faultless career, it did have its fair share of nagging issues. Laudrup was a character who knew his job and executed it just fine. Yet, he could never take a word from a critic on a positive note. Even in that incredible spell at Barcelona, when the Dane was rated as the most fearsome orchestrator a side possessed across Europe, he had his share of problems with Cruyff. The Dutch understandably looked to harvest more out of the Dane’s abundance of talent, while Michael never welcomed anyone questioning his commitment levels.
And then Cruyff committed the ultimate sin. He kept him out of the Champions League final against AC Milan that ended in a humiliating 4-0 loss for the Catalan side. Yet Laudrup’s demeanor never had a side that would ignite a revolt against his mentor and that was the last time he was known as a Barcelona player. It’s tough to argue the impact of Laudrup’s exclusion on the final result, but it did reflect how dispensable he was from the starting eleven.
“Laudrup was the guy I feared but Cruyff left him out, and that was his mistake.” – Fabio Capello, after watching his AC Milan side dismantle Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final
He left as a Catalan hero and stayed so forever, even when he went on to play for their rivals at Madrid. While others that went on to cross this forbidden bridge between the two Spanish superpowers have often been labelled as traitors, Laudrup might be the only one player in the history to have been loved across the great Spanish divide. Maybe it was his ignorance towards inept politics in the game, or maybe the world couldn’t have thought to disrespect a romantic that loved the game more than anything else. All in all, he did just enough for the footballing generation to adore his pedigree irrespective of the decisions he made throughout his career – and isn’t that what every footballer dreams to be?
It is rather inexplicable, but he treated his work as a medium to provide those small yet priceless moments of awe and soothing satisfaction to the onlookers. And when you look back at that illustrious career, it’s hard to argue whether he fulfilled his prime motive or not. He won 4 consecutive La Liga titles and a European Cup while playing for the two best clubs in Spain, led his country to a World Cup and the Euros and was rewarded with an ideal farewell from football against the mighty Brazilians at the 1998 World Cup.
Many still believe he was the sole expression of dream-like football, while others argue that his on-field prowess was only a part of his surreal potential. Yet it’s hard to find his brand of football ever being replicated by a player on the field for generations to come. The deft touches, deceptive feints, well-weighted thread-balls and a knack of scoring stupendous goals – it will certainly take some time before we ever witness a phenomenon close to Laudrup’s genius in the beautiful game.
Let’s put it this way – had football been a form of expression, then Laudrup would sure be labelled as its most articulate ambassador.Published 18 May 2013, 21:38 IST