The theory of collective intelligence is well-established. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ principle states that the averaged answer of a group of individuals outweighs that of a single expert on matters of spatial awareness, quantity estimation and general knowledge. It was first mooted by Aristotle, and has been continued by philosophers, statisticians and economists pretty much ever since. It is one good reason why juries and panels exist.
Without offending Aristotle, the Marquis de Condorcet and Francis Galton, Laudrup’s lack of international recognition erodes confidence in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ principle. Between 1989 and 1996, Denmark’s greatest-ever player was European football’s finest footballer. Not only did European journalists fail to award Laudrup with France Football’s Ballon D’Or; he never even made the top three. That is an absolute travesty and Pep Guardiola agrees: “I just can’t believe he hasn’t won the title as best player in the world.”
Laudrup was not just an attacking midfielder capable of playing anywhere across the pitch, he was a total footballer who peaked under the tutelage of Johan Cruyff and his Barcelona vision. He was arguably the most elegant European player of all time. After Cruyff of course.
First named Denmark’s Player of the Year at the age of 18, Laudrup moved to Juventus from Brondby in 1983 but was famously close to joining Liverpool instead. “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.”
Laudrup’s time in Italy wasn’t entirely successful. Serie A’s foreigner rule meant that he was loaned to Lazio for two seasons (without his prior knowledge), and Laudrup suffered regular injuries in his final three seasons at the Stadio delle Alpi. In 1989 he joined Cruyff’s Dream Team, and became one of the pillars of Barcelona’s unprecedented run of success. In a five-year spell at the Camp Nou, the Dane won four league titles, a Copa del Rey, two Supercopa de España, the UEFA Super Cup and the European Cup.
When Laudrup announced that he was leaving Barcelona after falling out with Cruyff – who left him out of the European Cup final team in 1994 – Guardiola was reportedly so upset by the news that he cried and begged Laudrup to change his mind, telling him that he had learned everything about football from his friend and teammate.
Joining Barcelona’s rivals Real Madrid, Laudrup was immediately influential in wrestling the La Liga title back from Catalonia. Despite playing only 62 league games for Real, in 2002 Laudrup was voted the 12th best player in the club’s history. In 1999 he was awarded the title of Spanish football’s best foreign player of the last 25 years; take that Cruyff, Hugo Sanchez, Hristo Stoichkov, Ronaldo, Bernd Schuster, Rivaldo and Luis Figo. No other player is loved on both sides of El Clasico quite like Laudrup, despite memorably causing 5-0 defeats for both clubs in consecutive seasons either side of his move.
There is an absolute doozy of an anecdote from Laudrup’s time in Madrid, which involves him eating in a fancy restaurant in the city in 1996. Laudrup was enjoying dinner with a friend and discussing retiring from football and leaving Spain. Sat a couple of tables away was King Juan Carlos I. Having overheard the conversation, Spain’s King wandered over. “That’s good news,” he said in Laudrup’s ear. “I’ll be the only King in Madrid again.” Truly the royal seal of approval.
If that is the general framework of Laudrup’s career, it is in the minutiae that joy can most easily be found. It is a bold shout, but there may have been no better exponent of passing and dribbling in harmony. He was certainly the best of his generation.
In the modern game, dribbling is a skill usually performed – and certainly enjoyed – when at pace. Slaloming attacking players weave through a defence with dropped shoulders and quick nudges of the ball from one side to another; Lionel Messi is the most high-profile example. Yet Laudrup mastered the art in a very different style. This was the power of the dribble without sprinting, but through variation and pure technique.
In slowing down the dribble, Laudrup lost the ability to surge away from his man. Instead, he relied upon timing. Like a matador with a bull, a magician with a trick or a comedian with a perfectly written joke, the key to Laudrup’s repertoire was to lure the defender into a false sense of hope that they could predict the eventual outcome and thus avoid being made to feel foolish. Laudrup would open up his body to stand face on and show his opponent the ball, but the moment they committed to the tackle he would flick it from their reach. The film The Prestige focuses on the three stages of an illusionist’s trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Laudrup could do all three with a football in the space of two seconds. It had a devastating effect.
Next came the passes, less an afterthought and more the crowning glory. Laudrup had an astonishing ability to play the ball with perfect accuracy with any part of his boot and at any point during his stride. First-time flicks, raking cross-field passes, backheels, left-footed crosses to the back post, right-footed crosses to the front post and the type of through balls that some players make once a year and then dine out on for the other 364 days. Importantly, that ability made it almost impossible to know when Laudrup’s passes were coming, and thus made him uncontrollable from a defensive point of view. When Laudrup left Barcelona, Hristo Stoichkov said that he was envious of every pass that Ivan Zamorano at Real Madrid received.
The foundations for Laudrup’s passing and dribbling was a vision that verged on the superhuman. Real coach Jorge Valdano remarked how “he has eyes everywhere”, while Zamorano joked that his teammates used to say that Laudrup had three eyes, not two. There is a fun game to play with the video below, where you press pause two seconds into each clip and try to guess which player will receive Laudrup’s pass and the route the ball will take. Despite seeing the picture in freeze-frame and from above, you’ll struggle to get more than half right. His no-look passes alone deserve their own place in a footballing hall of fame. (Incidentally, that video is 83 minutes of one player passing. Eighty-three minutes. That’s longer than Phone Booth. Yet it doesn’t get boring, instead transfixes you with its many shades of Danish brilliance. It’s like the football YouTube version of The Ring 2, but with a less unhappy ending).
So why did Laudrup not receive the recognition his talents warranted? Certainly not due to a lack of respect from his peers, judging by the list of those who consider him one of the game’s elite. “I fully understand why he is considered one of the best players in Barcelona’s history and even the world,” says Messi. “Who is the best player in history? Laudrup,” says Andres Iniesta. “When Michael plays it is like a dream, a magic illusion, and no one in the world comes anywhere near his level,” said Cruyff.
Both Romario and Raul separately described Laudrup as the best player they had ever played with. A non-exhaustive list of those to enjoy such a privilege include Bebeto, Ronaldo, Ronald Koeman, Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Davor Suker, Clarence Seedorf, Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Luis Enrique and Guardiola.
Perhaps Laudrup suffered for his selflessness, his reputation as a gentleman footballer and his contentment to play the perfect supporting role for some of the world’s greatest strikers. ‘He only has to stroll by for girls to start ovulating, boys to start dribbling and grannies to start cooing, itching to wipe his cheek with spit on a hankie,’ as Sid Lowe wrote for The Guardian. “Michael had everything except for one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough,” as Michel Platini once said.
Or maybe, as his mentor Cruyff believed, Laudrup was simply comfortable with football as artform, as an aesthetic pursuit. A player for whom the difficult comes so incredibly easy can easily draw a reputation for laziness, however unfair that may be.
“Had Michael been born in a poor ghetto in Brazil or Argentina with the ball being his only way out of poverty he would today be recognised as the biggest genius of the game ever,” Cruyff said. “He had all the abilities to reach it but lacked this ghetto-instinct, which could have driven him there.”
Even if Cruyff was right, that is no reason to diminish Laudrup’s magnificence. Every great team is comprised of both streetfighters and artists, and it is Laudrup’s enigmatic grace that made him so popular. Laudrup made football look more beautiful and more graceful than anyone since the great Dutch master; he was Cruyff’s crown prince. Sorry Jordi.
Slightly surprisingly, the perfect place to end is with former Swansea defender Alan Tate. When Tate told a radio station in August 2012 that Laudrup was still the best player in Swansea training at the age of 48, the presenters laughed at his banter. Yet rather than laugh with them, Tate was unmoved; it wasn’t joke.
Fourteen years after retiring, Laudrup’s majesty had finally dropped to the talent of mere mortals. For the best part of a decade he played on a higher plane, where only the angels and Johan Cruyffs tread.