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Illustration by Federico Manasse

The word ‘brilliant’ is overused in talking about football’s greats. But if ever there were a player that encapsulated shades of Johan Cruyff’s technique, the journeyman status of George Best, and the vision of Zinedine Zidane, it was Michael Laudrup.

The comparisons are bold, bordering on assuming, but they too are justified. The Danish midfield maestro is widely regarded as one of the best players of his generation and arguably the greatest player ever to hail from Danish shores. Laudrup belongs to an iconic yet unheralded generation of players that may not receive the prestige or superstar status the modern footballer today demands but could very well play amongst today’s mercurial talents in their prime.

Watching highlights of Laudrup is a terrifyingly exciting and awe-inspiring experience; one every self-proclaimed savant of the game should partake in regularly. The man glided across the pitch laterally, thinking three steps ahead while taking two fewer steps to beat an opponent, unlock a passing lane, execute a feint, or manipulate the ball along with time and space, and did so with relative ease. When the game is made to look that effortless, the aforementioned comparisons to the greats make more sense.

From his early days at Copenhagen club Kjøbenhavns Boldklub and their famed Danish rivals Brøndby, Laudrup displayed the poise, technical ability, and vision that would see him and a generation of Danish footballers take their talents to some of the most revered clubs in European football.

At club level, Michael Laudrup’s magnitude as a player is perhaps best measured in the quality of the sides he featured in: Lazio, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Ajax and even Japanese club Vissel Kobe. Having become teammates with so many era-defining players – Michel Platini, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Pep Guardiola, Romário, Iván Zamorano, Raúl – only further cements his justifiable genius.

Original Series  |  The 50

Laudrup’s impact on the Danish game is undoubtedly iconic but it is not without its missteps and flaws. After his fallout with Danish national team manager Richard Møller Nielsen, Laudrup quit the side prior to Euro 92, and fate was both cruel and serendipitous to the Danes. After failing to qualify for the tournament, but eventually gaining entry after Yugoslavia’s ousting on account of the war raging within its borders, Laudrup’s hubris kept him sidelined for a tournament the Danes would shock the world in winning.

In international football, Laudrup was one of many wonderful Danish talismanic talents but, compared to his exploits and successes in club football, his international career could have been something truly special. Though far from being considered a failure, as Laudrup amassed plenty of individual accolades and awards for his displays with Denmark, one wonders what could have been if his attitude was aligned with the needs of his nation for the 1992 European Championships and how that could well have propelled Danish football forward with the generation of players he spearheaded.

There is an allure to Laudrup that hints of his dichotomy as a man and as a professional. With the kind of talent in his boots, it’s clear that he was revered by his teammates and opponents. His managers, however, especially the great Johan Cruyff, heaped praise on his play while also reminding us of the greater heights Laudrup could have reached had he only applied himself further and bought into the same ideals as his tutors. It was Cruyff who bluntly delivered a string of backhanded compliments that shed light onto the relationship between the two stubborn and troubled geniuses when he said: “[Laudrup] one of the most difficult players I have worked with. When he gives 80 to 90 percent he is still by far the best, but I want 100 percent and he rarely does that.”

Platini shared Cruyff’s sentiment when he named Laudrup as “one of the biggest talents ever”. He went on to say: “He’s the best in the world on the training pitch, but never used his talent to its fullest during matches.” Perhaps conflict is the natural order of things when two enigmatic and sagacious football brains share both a training room and a headspace.

Michael Laudrup was not just a brilliant footballer; he was an electric and elegant player whose talents can neither be taught nor fully replicated. Over the course of his career as a player and today, as a manager, Laudrup carries with him an aura of prodigiousness and is still regarded as one of the best players not of a generation but of all time. His astute pedigree is universally acclaimed and the quotes that praise him as a player, opponent, and teammate are chock-full of a respect that often borders on reverence. There is no question: few players leave an impact on the footballing world like Michael Laudrup’s 

Writer  |  Jon Townsend  

Editor  |  Will Sharp