In the pantheon of underappreciated footballers, Michael Laudrup is somewhat of an anomaly.
As idiosyncratic as they come he sits in a vacuum. Laudrup boasts seven league winners medals across Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, a European Cup and individual honours including Don Balón 1991-1992 – awarded to the best foreign player in La Liga, twice Danish Player of the Year trophies and was included in the FIFA World Cup All-Star team for 1998. An integral cog in the adored Barcelona side of the early 1990’s, affectionately named ‘the dream team’ and yet still carries an almost global label of under appreciation – will still hear noise that he is underrated wherever you go.
Perhaps always destined for football given that his uncle, Ebbe Skovdal, and father, Finn, played professionally, Michael Laudrup would start his professional career in the humble beginnings of Brøndby, alongside his brother Brian and with his father as head coach. Father and son, then 16, even playing together as part of a friendly for Brøndby after a period with Copenhagen based KB.
The year 1982 would see Michael crowned Danish Footballer of the Year, attracting scouts from all over Europe eager to sign this raw but enigmatic young talent. Juventus would prove victors after Liverpool and Laudrup had put pen to paper, only for the reds to change the negotiated deal.
Despite Turin calling, it was Rome where he would spend the next two seasons as he was loaned to Lazio due to the restrictions on foreigners during that time in Italy. This proved to be a shock to Michael, who had no prior knowledge of any such arrangement.
It proved to be a huge learning curve, playing alongside the likes of Batista and Oliviero Garlini in a two-year stint before finally making his way to Juventus, where he would create a partnership with Michel Platini. However, despite winning Serie A in 1986 he would never show his full potential for the Old Lady.
Following 6 years in Italy, Laudrup looked for a new challenge and Barcelona, with Johan Cruyff at the helm, provided the perfect opportunity. He would win his first league title with Barcelona in 1991 and go on to claim four in a row. Laudrup was twice elected Spanish Footballer of the Year during that period and would also secure a European Cup, with a win over Sampdoria in 1992 at Wembley – Barcelona’s first in their history.
It was here that Laudrup would truly hone his elegance under the philosophy of Johan Cruyff, alongside the likes of Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Pep Guardiola. His style would thrive and they would play arguably the most attractive football of the decade.
Often compared to the majestic Ajax team of the 1970s, Laudrup was at the heart of the side. Quick, intelligent and possessing the ability to turn defence into attack with either a pass or carrying the ball, perhaps his only weakness was his lack of selfishness, as understood by former teammate Michel Platini: "Michael had everything except for one thing: he wasn't selfish enough."
"I think we played some very good football, and I think most of all we demonstrated that even without getting the ten best players in the world, you can have the best team. Because everybody talked about Begiristain, Bakero, Guardiola, Stoichkov, and Koeman, but when we started none of us was the best player, then we became maybe the best team in the world, together with AC Milan in that period," Laudrup added.
Capable of playing in a number of positions Laudrup demonstrated a unique depth of understanding and vision for the game, developing an almost clairvoyant relationship with Stoichkov and excelling in a freedom to attack.
Two years later and Barcelona would again see themselves in a European Cup final versus AC Milan, Europe’s other powerhouse. The arrival of Brazilian striker Romario would cause rotation problems and Laudrup would be left out of a humiliating 4-0 defeat amid rumours of a rift with Johan Cruyff.
Noting a decline in competitiveness with players featured in a World Cup and Barcelona’s squad featured heavily, along with the disparity at Camp Nou he decided to leave. With only four or five players involved in the 1994 World Cup and hungry for success he would commit the ultimate Catalan sin – moving to Real Madrid.
Playing under Jorge Valdano, his scholarly prediction materialised and they won La Liga in his first season. Incidentally, Laudrup’s involvement would see immediate return for Real Madrid and Iván Zamorano who became Pichichi – the award for top scorer in La Liga – profiting from Laudrup’s assists and creativity.
Extraordinarily he remains to be the only player on the winning sides of 5-0 wins for both Barcelona and Real Madrid versus one another.
Despite returning to a violently intimidating atmosphere with Real Madrid at the Camp Nou – one he would readily admit had a discerning effect on his performance – he remains one of the only players ever to be adorned by both sides. The feat is surely a mark of respect he assumes.
Laudrup enjoyed a modest international career, debuting on his 18th birthday on 15th June 1982 and becoming the second youngest ever player for Denmark. Despite being involved in an embattled relegation fight for Lazio he would star as Denmark progressed to the semi-finals of Euro 1984 only to be knocked out by Spain after penalties.
Two years later in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, despite a futile campaign, he would provide an archetypal goal that encapsulates his style. Picking the ball up 30 yards out against Uruguay he weaved his way past five players before beating the goalkeeper to score arguably the goal of the tournament. It would be his most memorable moment in the De Rød-Hvide colours.
Time in a national shirt would be fraught with disputes and Laudrup would, along with his brother Brian and Jan Mølby, pull out prior to Euro 1992. Brian would have a change of heart and would travel to Sweden, but Michael would sit out of Denmark’s finest hour as the underdogs shocked the continent by winning the tournament, beating the holders Netherlands then red-hot favourites Germany in the final.
He would pick up a noteworthy Intercontinental Cup in 1995, scoring a goal versus Argentina in the final, but he retired from international football alongside brother Brian following a 3-2 defeat to Brazil at the 1998 World Cup, with both being named in FIFA’s All-Star team.
Despite just two seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu, he was voted 12th best Real Madrid player of all time and performances prompted Raul to christen him as “the best I have ever played with.”
Laudrup sought another move after a downturn in success and 13 years at the top-level taking its toll. He joined Vissel Kobe in Japan. However, after just six months and 15 appearances, he was bereft of the quality European football provided him with and decided to join Ajax, who were managed by ex-teammate Morten Olsen. A league and cup double would follow.
Michael Laudrup’s career was defined by an innate ability to dictate play and a showmanship that was distinguishable as his own. Rarely do poise, pragmatism and efficiency meet with such glaring aesthetic. An individual of stylish pragmatism and tasteful excess – an indulgence few had seen on a football pitch.
“The best player in the world, I can’t believe he hasn’t won the title as the best player,” Pep Guardiola said.
"One of the best European players I’ve ever seen. An elegant, old-fashioned playmaker, he did things few other footballers could do," Hristo Stoichkov added.
“The best player I have ever played with and the 4th best in the history of the game,” Romario concluded.