The next time you hear Jamie Redknapp or Andy Townsend gush about some crashingly limited midfield donkey’s “triffic enjinn,” I want you to bear two things in mind: first, as Ruud Gullitt said of Roy Keane, my car has a good engine but that doesn’t mean it can play football; second, receiving praise off workaday English pundits doesn’t carry quite the same kudos as having Franz Beckenbauer say “Pelé was the best in the 60s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s, and Laudrup in the 90s”. That’s Der Kaiser, folks. Or take Andrés Iniesta: “The greatest player in history? Laudrup.” Still not satisfied? Well, in 2006, Raúl said Laudrup was the best he ever played with, and he played five seasons with Zidane.
That, amigo, is Big Boy Shit. I mean, at the turn of the millennium, he was voted La Liga’s best player in the previous quarter-century – not Cruyff, not Maradona, not Ronaldo, not John Aldridge; Laudrup.
Obviously, then, it wasn’t much of a stretch for UEFA to crown him Denmark’s Golden Player, despite the fact that a disagreement with coach Richard Moller Nielsen led to him absenting himself from his nation’s footballing zenith: the remarkable (but not off-the-beach) Euro ’92 triumph as replacements for not-quite-yet-former Yugoslavia. Even so, this disappointment was more than offset by a stellar club career that, after leaving Brøndby as a 20-year-old, took in no less than seven top division titles with Juventus (one), Barcelona (four), Real Madrid (one), and Ajax (one).
Although he briefly shared the Juve midfield with UEFA’s curmudgeonly rosbifophobe president, Michel Platini, his peak years were undoubtedly spent with Barca’s Dream Team (1989-94), for whom he provided the cold-blooded seny (reason, or nous) to Stoichkov’s fervid rauxa (passion).
Even so, his occasional maverick tendencies and perceived laziness often exasperated his coach, Cruyff (an Oedipal drama, perhaps), and so, following his omission from the Champions League final in 1994 (a 4-0 drubbing by Fabio Capello’s Milan, the Italian incredulous that the Dane was absent), he was offloaded to arch-rivals Real Madrid, where he was instrumental in a 5-0 evisceration of the blaugrana en route to a fifth straight title. A mark of the affection in which he is held in Catalunya is that, while another former favourite to sign directly for Real, Luis Figo, had a pig’s head lobbed at him, Barca’s fans still idolise the Dane.
What did Laudrup have? The overriding sensation was that of an almost balletic grace; he simply floated over the surface. Technically, he was a consummate two-footed dribbler, his trademark move being la croqueta (switching the ball quickly between feet to slalom between two onrushing defenders), since adopted by Iniesta. It all came from balance, of course – not only that of 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 like a matador who allows the tiring, defeated bull to brush his thighs, he would slip the ball inches from the helpless defender’s feet before a flourish of acceleration sent him clear (¡Olé! indeed).
On top of that, he had breathtaking control and was a hyper-intelligent passer, with the uncanny defence-unlocking ability common to all the best playmakers. Of his repertoire of final balls, it was perhaps the look-the-other-way pass or signature ‘spoon’ pass – one that scarcely even entered the thoughts of lesser players – for which he will be best remembered, leading to the nickname ‘the tin opener’ (in my house, at least).
Laudrup the coach
A true, unfettered Nordic genius, then – perhaps the only one ever to emerge from those cold, collectivist (or individualism inhibiting) lands – the culés who saw him in his Camp Nou-bestriding pomp certainly realized they were witnessing a rare era adorned by a rare talent, and to make the point hung a huge banner commanding us, in English, and thus politely, to “Enjoy Laudrup”.