MICHAEL LAUDRUP WAS THE BEST PLAYER TO NEVER WIN THE BALLON D'OR
Words: Scott Oliver
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Suppose one day you find yourself sat in the IKEA cafeteria prodding at some köttbullar and feeling rightfully smug for having chosen the holmö floor lamp over the duderö for the new flat that you’ve moved into with your dreamily taciturn lover from the slopes above Trondheim. Suppose that, having meandered conversationally through such diverse topics as Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto, the role of play in the Finnish education system, and the superiority of Todd Terje’s ‘Strandbar’ to his better known anthem ‘Inspector Norse’, you run aground in some wordless wilderness until it simultaneously occurs to you both, prompted by who knows what, to select an All-Time Scandinavian XI. Suppose that it occurs to you that unless you want Ingrid (whose mum played in the final of the first Women’s World Cup) to know that you don’t really understand football—potentially trapping the relationship down an early cohabitational fjord—it goes without saying that having briefly considered Gunnar Nordahl and Jari Litmanen, Henrik Larsson and Preben Elkjær, the first name on the putative team sheet must be Michael Laudrup, if only because you’re not quite 100 per cent on the spelling of Ibrahimović.
Of course, Zlatan and his pornographically diverse high-end goal montages undoubtedly out-YouTubes almost all modern players, but there remains the impression that his magisterial brilliance didn’t always improve the teams he played in, that those teams had to adapt themselves to his enigmatic and somewhat static brilliance. His hype always required a good deal of his oxygen supply, too, whereas Laudrup has never trumpeted his own talents. In fact, he even kept shtum about bumping into King Juan Carlos I in a restaurant near the end of his final year in Madrid and being asked whether rumours he was leaving were true. When he nodded diffidently, Juan Carlos, a Real fan, replied: “Oh, that’s good, now I can go back to being the only King of Spain.”
Laudrup’s hype came without additives. He was what science calls “a footballer’s footballer”, as can be gleaned from the absurd list of tributes on his Wikipedia page, which has so many props from legends it would make even Paul Scholes blush. For, while the similarly Ballon d’Or-less Ginger Ninja was considered the best midfielder of his generation by, among others, Xavi, Zidane, Edgar Davids, CR7, Iniesta, and Patrick Vieira, the Laudrup blurb surpasses even this peer-reviewed love-in.
Here’s Johan Cruyff: “When Michael plays it is like a dream, a magic illusion and no one in the world comes anywhere near his level.” (Although there’s a hint of submerged criticism, too, in that “when Michael plays”; more of which to come). And Franz Beckenbauer: “Pelé was the best in the 60s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s, and Laudrup in the 90s”. Raúl called him “the best player I ever played with” (a list that includes Zidane, Figo, Xavi, Iniesta, and Ronaldos Cristiano and Fenômeno) as did Barça teammate Romário, adding that the Dane was “the fourth best in the history of the game”.
All of which makes you realize just how gutted Liverpool fans would come to feel when their club bungled Laudrup’s transfer from Brøndby in the summer of 1983, despite the then 19-year-old Danish Footballer of the Year already having been photographed in a bowler hat (to connote Englishness, duh) and the famous red shirt. A three-year deal had been agreed until, at the eleventh hour, Liverpool tried to add an extra year to the contract—and why not!—but on the same money, effectively giving him an 8% pay cut before he’d even kicked a ball.
“I think Liverpool, at that time, were one of the top three teams in Europe,” Laudrup recalls. “So they thought that this young Dane would call them back and say ‘Of course I will come’, but I didn’t. And two weeks later I signed for Juventus.”
English football may have been denied its weekly dose of Laudruppers, yet although the era before saturation TV coverage of European football allowed genuine megastars to retain a sense of mystery, the Dane would soon be bursting into English football’s collective consciousness after orchestrating a famous victory at Wembley in September 1983. Bobby Robson who loved football itself above its tribal divisions, even the nation he was coaching—had scouted the Danes two weeks earlier in a 3–1 friendly victory over France, Laudrup scoring two in Les Bleus’ sole defeat in a 22-game stretch, and Robson was effusive upon his return: “It’s wonderful that a little country can produce such players. They now have a formidable team, the best I have seen for ten to fifteen years”.
It wasn’t an eccentric view, either at the time or since. When World Soccer magazine asked a panel of experts to come up with the 20 greatest teams in history, club or national, the so-called Danish Dynamite team of the mid-80s came in at sixteenth, despite the sum of their achievements being a semifinal exit (to Spain) in Euro ’84, and a second round exit (to Spain) at Mexico ’86. But then cult teams don’t need success to achieve glory—three of the top five were ‘losers’: Hungary 1953, Netherlands 1974, and Brazil 1982—while the Danes did happen to have that cult Hummel strip, with its candy stripes and chevroned sleeves.
The team had been improving slowly and steadily under Sepp Piontek, and boasted great players in Elkjær, Morten Olsen, Søren Lerby, Allan Simonsen, Frank Arnesen, and Jesper Olsen among others, but it was the emergence of Laudrup that iced the cake, as Rob Smyth, Mike Gibbons, and Lars Eriksen explain in Danish Dynamite: “Everything had fallen into place—the manager, the focus, the system, and, finally, Laudrup completing a twenty-four-carat golden generation of players.” This was a style of football “played at more bpms than Total Football, making it at once both derivative and thrillingly futuristic.”
The glorious World Cup adventure started with a 1–0 victory over Scotland, after which skipper Graeme Souness— surprisingly not detailed by temporary manager Alex Ferguson to, er, reduce the chief Danish threat—had gushed that “Laudrup is, quite simply, a magnificent player. He goes past players better than anyone I have seen.” (Rumours that Laudrup returned the compliment by saying Souness “goes through players better than anyone I have seen” are unsubstantiated.) And it came to a crescendo in Denmark’s thrilling 6–1 evisceration of a roughhousing Uruguayan team that seemed to have taken the Group of Death label a little too literally. They were slowly, surgically, Nordicly pulled apart, the game illuminated by Laudrup’s solo goal, ghosting past four players (and the referee) and the goalkeeper as if they were not there.
They rounded the group off with a 2–0 win over football’s omni-enemy West Germany, but then, having been installed as third favourites and taken a 1–0 lead against Spain, they collapsed 5–1 to a rampant Emilio Butragueño, which Laudrup ascribed to collective inexperience and poor game management. That said, he doesn’t subscribe to the view that but for Arnesen’s needless 88th-minute red card against the Germans or Jesper Olsen’s underhit back pass against Spain when leading 1–0 Denmark might have gone on to win the tournament. The reason? “Maradona”.
A long two years later, a fading group lost the opening game of the 1988 Euros—to Spain—and hit the proverbial wall, exiting without a point. It went rather better for them next time, of course, as the implosion of the not-quite-yet-former- Yugoslavia—a country boasting both intractable ethnopolitical fault lines and array of technically gifted footballers—allowed them in through the back door (though not off the beach) and on to glory, all without their best player, who had downed tools in 1990, aged 26, amidst rumours of tactical differences with Richard Møller Nielsen and, he later said, the exertions of being the key man for both club and country.
If Spain had been Laudrup’s nemesis at international level, then at club level they provided the platform for his peak years—the seven shared between FC Barcelona and Real after arriving in Catalonia in 1988 following a not entirely fruitful six in Italy with Juve. However, with Serie A rules permitting only two foreign players in any match day squad, Laudrup was always likely to be odd man out to Michel Platini, at the start of a three-year Ballon d’Or-winning run, and Polish hitman Zbigniew Boniek. So he was farmed out to Lazio for his first two seasons, then suffered intermittent injury and dips in form across the next four years in Turin before his idol as a boy, Johan Cruyff, came calling and made him a pillar of the fabled Dream Team, its creative fulcrum, dribbling and passing, drifting and probing, darting and unpicking.
The culés who regularly drooled over his dribbling knew they were witnessing a rare era of dominance adorned by a rare talent, and hung a huge banner commanding us, in English, to “Enjoy Laudrup” (unspoken subtext: “...while you can”). It all came from balance, of course—not only in his own supremely elegant movement but also in the awareness of when his opponents were off balance, having the classic dribbler’s innate sense of when to move the ball. He would often stop his markers dead in their tracks; then, as they were momentarily flat-footed, much as a matador allows the tiring, defeated bull to brush his thighs, he would slip the ball inches from the helpless defender’s feet before gliding clear. His signature trick was the croqueta—switching the ball quickly between feet to slalom between two onrushing defenders—since trademarked by one Andrés Iniesta.
On top of that, Laudrup had a breathtakingly velvet touch and seemingly invented a whole new footballing geometry with his passing, a Riemannian space opened up by his flicks, raking cross-field balls, crosses with both feet, stabs, scoops, and chips. He frequently bent the game’s tempo to his own will, too, possessing that rare ability to be stillness amid the storm—a man capable of playing snooker on a steamboat— before bursting like a comet across the southern skies. He not only had a higher understanding of the attacking possibilities on the field at any given instant—a range of course amplified by his otherworldly talent—but also the technical ability to turn imagination into reality.
Of his repertoire of safecracking final balls, it was either his ‘no-look’ or signature ‘spoon’ pass that made the culés’ hearts dance, and in that five-year spell at Camp Nou, Laudrup won four league titles, a Copa del Rey, two Spanish Super Cups, the UEFA Super Cup, and the club’s first ever European Cup. But he didn’t entirely win over Cruyff, and it was while trying to bag a second European Cup against AC Milan in Athens—a game for which Laudrup was omitted, competition rules permitting only three foreign players and Cruyff opting for Koeman, Stoichkov, and Romário—that things finally unravelled between them. The heavy 4–0 defeat was, according to Charly Rexach, Cruyff’s number two, “the beginning of the end” for the over-confident Dream Team. It was certainly the end for Laudrup at Cruyff’s Barcelona.
There was always something vaguely Oedipal about their relationship. Cruyff, of course, had been the freethinking darling of the blaugrana during the final years of the Franco dictatorship, and in the early nineties, Laudrup had displaced him at the top of the Barça pantheon. Cruyff undoubtedly loved his son Michael, but couldn’t have him surpass him, or supplant him in the culés’ affections, and so, with regular doses of tough love, the punitive father kept the lavishly gifted, albeit errant child in line.
Whether or not Laudrup read Sophocles or much psychoanalysis is hard to know. Players’ first-hand testimonies aren’t always reliable—old sentiments are held on to, and memories warp as scores are settled, biases confirmed—yet Laudrup’s reflections on this schism with the Mister seem both insightful and plausible. He believed that the memory of Netherlands’ defeat to Germany in the 1974 World Cup final had scarred Cruyff, who, if not scapegoated exactly, was certainly criticised by his compatriots for a sub-par performance, which rankled given his excellence across the tournament and for the opening period of the final itself. Thus, having been in his mind unfairly singled out at the time of his country’s deepest footballing trauma, Cruyff the former chain smoker became constitutionally incapable of blowing smoke up his superstars’ arses and instead invariably laced any praise with an emphasis on often minor shortcomings.
“He used to give me some great compliments: ‘Even when Michael’s at 90 per cent he’s the best but I want 100 per cent’,” said Laudrup. “That’s very nice, but it was always about the ten per cent [with Cruyff]”.
And so the drama was resolved in the Ancient Greek tradition when, after the Athens evisceration, the son departed—at the time, just the ninth player to transfer directly between the two Spanish giants in the history of La Liga— and returned to symbolically murder the father, famously orchestrating, in his debut Clásico for Madrid, a 5–0 victory in the Bernabéu to avenge Real’s 5–0 loss in the clubs’ previous meeting. There had been only one manita in the previous 41 seasons, and then two came along in successive games. And so Laudrup, uniquely in the history of this fixture, was 10–0 up over the two legs. Iván Zamorano, who scored a first-half hat-trick, went from an 11-goal season of misfiring to the 28-goal pichichi, while Stoichkov, red-carded in the same game, later admitted that every pass the Chilean received from Laudrup made him rabid with envy.
The pain was, of course, unbearable in Catalonia. And so, though Laudrup’s first visit back to Camp Nou didn’t quite reach Figo levels—the first galáctico famously had, among other things a pig’s head thrown at him while somewhat foolhardily trying to take a corner—it was still far from welcoming, with a torrent of jeers and scything tackles and banners inviting him to DIE! awaiting him. “I knew it would be bad,” he recalled, “but not that bad. It was the only game in my career when factor other than strictly football ones affected my performance.”
And yet, while Figo remained about as welcome in Barcelona as an outbreak of Spanish flu, attitudes to Laudrup quickly softened. He was simply too decent, too vulnerable. After all, with his bright eyes, square jaw, and shampoo-ad hair, he had the air of an Ivy League lacrosse star, shoulders draped in a cotton jersey and listening to the Best of Yacht Rock 17 en route to taking your daughter, with your full blessing, out for ice cream sundaes. This was no pesetero, no money-grabber. He hadn’t angled for a move. “I was out of contract and out of the team,” he says, matter of factly, as though that’s all there was to it. Today, both clubs claim him as one of their own—despite playing only 62 league games for Real, in 2002 he was voted the 12th best player in the club’s history—while he diplomatically and dexterously sidesteps questions of his definitive allegiance like it was just another onrushing defender.
Given the smattering of plaudits, it would be hard to claim that Laudrup was underrated, exactly. But, as was observed by Pep Guardiola (who, not entirely surprisingly, sobbed when the Dane left Barcelona), him not winning a Ballon d’Or feels close to scandalous. This was, after all, an award won by Igor Belanov, Jean-Pierre Papin, and Michael Owen, among others, while Laudrup never even made the top three. And yet, in 1999 was voted La Liga’s best player in the previous quarter-century—not Cruyff, not Maradona, not Ronaldo, not John Aldridge.
Perhaps he was too much of a deluxe second fiddle, as that pair of triple Ballon d’Or-winning big beasts contended, Cruyff arguing the Dane lacked “ghetto instinct” while Platini called him “the best on the training pitch but [he] never used his talents to their fullest in matches” who “had everything except for one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough.” Platini would, of course, go on to confirm his own selfishness beyond all reasonable doubt.
Unlike Zlatan, teams didn’t adapt to Laudrup; he adapted to them, improving each and every one of them. Or so it seemed. With Laudrup declining a last-minute invitation to join his countrymen for their Euro ’92 joyride, there’s a popular theory that with their best player in the squad they wouldn’t have won. Which may, of course, be true, such is the beautiful game’s beautifully unpredictable relationship between the parts and the whole, its myriad ways of skinning cats. Football is in the connections, the combinations, the chemistry.
Yet the fact remains that most good observers of Danish football insist that the improvement in their country’s football was catalysed by two factors: a huge sponsorship deal with a local multinational brewer that professionalised the national team and the timely X-factor provided by a modest genius from the Copenhagen suburbs. And if Carlsberg did complete attacking midfielders, then chances are they’d have made something similar to Michael Laudrup.
If you'd like a football magazine that's not like other football magazines then you're in luck. You can subscribe to it here.