To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Denmark chose Michael Laudrup as their Golden Player.
Michael Laudrup is more than happy – if maybe a little embarrassed – to be acclaimed as Denmark's greatest footballer, but the players and coaches who have worked with him – Johan Cruyff, Giovanni Trapattoni and Michel Platini among them – insist that, had he been more selfish, he would have become one of the legends of the world game. After serving team-mates with goals he might easily have scored himself, he would shrug his shoulders and calmly insist that creating goals gave him as much, if not more, pleasure than sticking them in the net.
Laudrup and his brother Brian inherited the mercurial skills of their father, Finn, blending them with the calm philosophy and positive outlook of their mother, an accomplished and skilful handball player. Born in Vienna, while his father was playing for SK Rapid Wien, Laudrup had to fine-tune his ball control to cope with the irregularities of a steeply sloping lawn. By the age of 13, he was outstanding enough for AFC Ajax to try to enrol him in their football academy, and he marked his 18th birthday with his first appearance for the Danish national team – in a friendly in Norway on 15 June 1982. In the meantime, he helped Brøndby IF gain promotion to Denmark's top division.
The 1984 UEFA European Championship and the 1986 FIFA World Cup finals demonstrated that the Danes' footballing qualities fully warranted the 'Brazilians of Europe' tag given them by the critics. Laudrup not only contributed skill, vision and creative spark to that side but also, as he continued to do throughout his career, inspired his team-mates to give the very best of themselves. What is more, he was universally liked.
Following in the footsteps of many top Danish talents, Laudrup was lured to Italy. Juventus beat off rival bids from the likes of Real Madrid CF, Ajax and Liverpool FC but, at a time when the two-foreigners restriction was still in place, the club had to play the futures market. They sent him to cut his Serie A teeth at S.S. Lazio until the departure of Zbigniew Boniek allowed him to move to Turin and team up with Platini.
"Michael had everything," said the future UEFA President, "except for one thing: he wasn't selfish enough." His coach at Juventus, Trapattoni, waxed lyrical about the skill, attitude, personality and team spirit of 'Michelino', adding: "If he had got into the box and scored more goals instead of setting up his team-mates, he would have been an all-time great." However, even the famed rigours of Serie A failed to wipe the smile from Laudrup's face - or his football.
When he left Italy to join Johan Cruyff's attack-obsessed FC Barcelona, a marriage seemed to have been made in heaven. "Watching him play football is pure pleasure," said the Dutchman. "In terms of movement, ball skills and understanding of the game, I have never seen anybody so similar to myself."
However, the marriage turned sour when Laudrup tired of Cruyff's efforts to goad him towards greater things. It speaks volumes for his charisma that even a move to arch-rivals Real Madrid CF failed to ferment the grapes of wrath at Camp Nou where, to this day, he receives and quietly enjoys a hero's welcome. After Madrid, Laudrup ended his playing days with spells at Vissel Kobe in Japan and Ajax before embarking on a coaching career that has already taken him to Brøndby, Getafe CF, FC Spartak Moskva and RCD Mallorca.
Looking back on his playing career it seems fitting that his 104th and last appearance for Denmark should have come against Brazil of all teams in a thrilling five-goal quarter-final at the 1998 World Cup. After all, while other players of such calibre might be assessed by the amount of silverware collected in Italy and Spain or the glory that rubbed on to their shoulders from their national shirt, Michael Laudrup is remembered for a style of play, a philosophy and a desire to give pleasure. His football was poetry.
Last updated: 21 January 2011
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