BY CRAIG MUNCEY
In my early years playing football, I was always on the look out for a player who could sufficiently shape and influence my aspirations to the extent that I wanted to become just like them. Watching Michael Laudrup in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, I saw a player who grabbbed my undivided attention. Here was a player who slalomed between players with mazy, labyrinthine dribbling, knowing the precise nanosecond when to run with the ball and when to pass. His zenith in that World Cup was against Uruguay, where he scored the most glorious and effortless of goals. He player was a genius with a football, or – in Danish – a “geni”
Michael Laudrup was born in 1964 in Frederiksberg, Denmark. At the age of 17 he signed his first professional football contract with Kjobenhavns Boldklub, the year was 1981. A year later, Laudrup moved onto Brondby, a progressive team in his home country. The same year, on the day of his 18th birthday, Laudrup made his international debut for Denmark. Here was a young man attracting the eye of many European suitors.
Laudrup started the 83/84 season with Brondby. Yet, European royalty (as they once were) in the guise of Liverpool came to Denmark pursuing the young maestro, looking for a player to replace ageing Scottish superstar and club legend, Kenny Dalglish. The surprise move almost came off, but at the last minute, Liverpool looked to increase the length of the contract to four years from three, which had already been agreed on. Laudrup, a childhood Liverpool fan, amazingly balked at this, and the deal fell through. Italian heavyweights Juventus stepped in and acquired Laudrup’s services. Due to the foreign player rule in existence at the time in Italy, which allowed for just two foreign imports to be selected in any given match, Laudrup’s first team opportunities were limited; Juventus already having the great Pole Zbigniew Boniek and Europe’s finest player Michel Platini on their books. Juve loaned Laudrup out to Lazio, who were struggling to stave off relegation at the time.
The Dane got off to the dream start scoring two goals on his debut for Lazio. With his help, they successfully avoided the drop. The initial agreement on his loan deal was for just one season, as the expectation was that neither Boniek nor Platini would leave the Turin club. This, however, did not happen; both remained in situ, so Laudrup had a second season with Lazio. This time around the Rome based club were not able to dodge the relegation bullet a second time; Serie B beckoned and Laudrup only scored one solitary goal the whole league campaign.
He returned to his parent club in 1985 replacing Boniek in the squad. Laudrup linked up with another European great, Platini, and in their initial season together they won the Italian League and – on that ill fated evening at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels – the European Cup against Liverpool.
Laudrup remained in Italy for four seasons, and if you look at his overall record there, then there were honours won, but overall his time there was a limited success, especially if you look at expectancy levels when he initially moved to Turin. He could not sustain consistency of performances through the period, a situation not helped by a run of niggling injuries.
During his spell with Juventus, Laudrup displayed his talents on the greatest football show on earth: the World Cup. It was 1986 and Denmark had qualified for the finals in Mexico; it was a debut that no one would forget.
The Danish team were well fancied, playing an attacking brand of football that was breathtakingly easy on the eye. Laudrup, although the young starlet, was far from the only attraction in the side. Alongside him were star names such as Preben Elkjaer, Jesper Olsen, Soren Lerby and Frank Arnesen.
Denmark topped their group in the first round, progressing undefeated with victories over Scotland, highly fancied West Germany and destroying Uruguay 6-1, with a display of artistry by Laudrup that made the world sit up and take notice.
Sepp Piontek’s side drew serial underachievers Spain in the second round, with most predicting a Danish victory. Indeed, they scored first and seemed to be in control, but this all turned when eal Madrid star Emilio Butragueno intervened. “The Vulture” scored four goals as Spain ran out comfortable 5-1 victors, leaving the Danish World Cup dream in tatters like discarded confetti strewn across the pitch in Querétaro.
Laudrup cut his losses in Italy in 1989, opting to join the Johan Cruyff revolution in Barcelona. The player immersed himself in the teachings of the Dutch master, a player he had similarities to; quick acceleration off the mark, silky dribbling skills and snake-like hips, his playing style fitted in well with the slick passing and interchangeable fluidity of Cruyff’s beautiful game. Laudrup was part of the so called ‘dream team’ that went on to win four consecutive league titles and a European Cup amongst other honours. Twice Laudrup won League player of the year during his time with the Catalan club, but the golden period came to an abrupt end when Laudrup was not selected to start in the 1994 European Cup Final versus AC Milan.
After leaving Barcelona following a fallout with Cruyff, Laudrup made the hugely contentious decision to join arch rivals Real Madrid in 1994, a move that many believed was a direct sleight to his former boss. Laudrup maintains that this was never the case, that it was to become involved in a new project; Madrid were in a rebuilding phase and Laudrup saw potential, and an opportunity. He was to be proven right. Real Madrid wrestled the league title out of Barcelona’s hands immediately. In the process, Laudrup became the first man to win four league titles in a row with two different clubs, a fantastic achievement.
Laudrup would only remain at the Bernabeu for two season, the second far less successful for both player and club. Even though he was only with the Spanish giants for two seasons, in 2002 he was voted the 12th greatest player to ever play for the club. Some endorsement!
The Danish superstar rounded off his footballing career in Japan and then, finally, with Dutch team Ajax, retiring for good in 1998.
So just how good was this mercurial talent? Well, to football greats such as Romario and Raul, he was the greatest player they ever played with. To others, such as Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini, he was an amazing talent, who never quite reached his full potential. All I know is that whenever I kicked a ball about at playtime and dreamed of being a professional footballer, I was – in my head – Michael Laudrup, a gliding, effortless footballer who could create and score goals at will.
Michael, thanks for the memories.
YOU CAN FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Muncey05