Few individuals have managed to become universally loved in the history of football. These are people who managed to stay above petty fights and rivalries to become respected by everybody, despite club or country affiliations. Michael Laudrup is one of these characters.
Ever since he started on his way to stardom in humble surroundings at Brøndby IF, the Dane has been respected for never leaving the high road. His career brought him from Denmark and Italy to Spain and later the Netherlands before Japan, and everywhere he went, his exemplary behaviour won the hearts of football fans. Laudrup even made the forbidden transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid, and was still seriously considered for the coaching job at Camp Nou when his playing career was over.
From his active career to the one on the sidelines, the Dane has always been considered the perfect gentleman, and an example of what makes the game of football beautiful. He has insisted on playing entertaining, attractive and offensive football, and even temporarily retired from the national team because it failed to do so – and the people loved him for it.
As a player, he made people fall in love with football while playing for Barcelona, and as a coach he had his players play some of the best football ever seen in Denmark when he coached Brøndby, while later impressing at both Getafe and Swansea as well with entertaining football.
In fact, Laudrup’s nickname in Denmark is Ambassadøren (Ambassador) for his work promoting the small kingdom through his skills on the football pitch, and for a long time he was considered the closest you could get to a royalty in Denmark outside of the actual royal family.
These days, however, things are quite different. Laudrup’s spot on the pedestal is gone, and as each day goes by, more and more of his magical aura disappears. To understand the demise of the maestro, you have to go all the way back to the early 1990s, when Michael Laudrup was a part of Johan Cryuff’s Dream Team in Barcelona.
There, Laudrup met Bayram Tutumlu, a Turkish Mercedes-Benz salesman, who through his work came to know the Barça players, whom he befriended and became close with. In fact, he became so close with them that he was invited to team gatherings, and it was the players who suggested he became an agent. Over a card game at Ronald Koeman’s house, he met Laudrup, and the two of them quickly became close friends and business partners as Tutumlu began as an agent.
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Laudrup’s controversial transfer to Real Madrid in 1994 was Tutumlu’s first major deal, and it laid the foundation to a successful career as an agent which later also saw him represent Diego Maradona among others.
While Laudrup excelled on the pitch, Tutumlu specialised in international tax rules, which the pair took advantage of in 1997, when Laudrup moved from Japanese side Vissel Kobe to Ajax.
Although Laudrup moved on a free transfer, he had a short pit stop on the way. For 48 hours, he was registered as a player for Bosnian side NK Čelik. In the Netherlands, money switching hands between two clubs transferring a player are tax free, while both club and player are supposed to pay tax on a sign-on fee. However, as Ajax paid Čelik, who then owned Laudrup’s player certificate, and not Laudrup himself, both Ajax and Laudrup avoided paying taxes. At the time, Ajax paid Čelik $1.95 million, but the money barely reached the Bosnians before it was transferred to Laudrup and Tutumlu.
All of this was exposed during a set of trials held in the Netherlands that began in 2001 when the authorities raided both Ajax offices and Laudrup’s home.
Ajax were charged with, and eventually found guilty of, tax evasion and sentenced to pay €2.96 million back to the Dutch state with €1.52 million of these being related to Laudrup’s transfer to the club, as the court ruled that the money paid to Čelik de facto was a sign-on fee. Therefore, the club passed the bill on to Laudrup, demanding him to pay his fair share of the cake, which he refused.
In 2016, 15 years after the case began, a Dutch ruling finally allowed him to keep his money, but the case had left a permanent stain on his otherwise perfect reputation.
Another stain, perhaps even uglier, came when Laudrup coached Premier League side Swansea City between 2012 and 2014. His stint there started perfectly as Swansea won their first major trophy – the League Cup in February 2013 – and he was praised both for the entertaining way the club played, but also for his brilliant transfers, with Spanish striker Michu being the prime example.
Just like at many of his other clubs, however, he fell out with the men in charge, and a year after he brought home the cup trophy, he was sacked. From the outside, the dismissal seemed premature, but it was things off the pitch that had doomed Laudrup, and once again Tutumlu was involved.
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“The club had suspected that Michael Laudrup didn’t want a given player to join the club unless Bayram Tutumlu was involved in the transfer,” Huw Jenkins wrote to the League Managers Association. “The club is still investigating player transfers in order to determine whether they were concluded at the club’s expense, while Bayram Tutumlu was affiliated with the club, and to what extent (if any) Michael Laudrup was involved in it.”
Leaked documents from Football Leaks, published by Danish newspaper Politiken in 2016, gave an insight into the shady dealings of Tutumlu. The documents show that Tutumlu several times succeeded in making deals with the agencies of players joining Swansea so that he would receive a part of the agent fee. For example, he made a deal with the Spanish agency Promoesport BCN, who represent players like Aleix Vidal, Eric Bailly and Iago Aspas, that would grant him 66 percent of the fee every time one of the agency’s players moved to Swansea.
On other occasions, Tutumlu went directly to the players themselves, and when Swansea signed Pablo Hernández in 2012, the Spaniard signed a deal where he would give a part of his monthly salary to Tutumlu if it reached a certain level. Politiken reported that Tutumlu had a personal interest in at least seven of Swansea’s signings during Laudrup’s time with the club.
When Laudrup extended his contract with Swansea, Tutumlu even persuaded the club to sign a deal that would grant him 7.5 percent of all transfer income, while the club was also obligated to pay him €470,000 per year to keep Laudrup at the club.
According to Politiken, Tutumlu made up to €4.37 million during Laudrup’s stint in Wales.
Laudrup has later stated that he, just like Tutumlu, hasn’t received “as much as a bent nickel in commission in connection with transfers”, but given Jenkins’ powerful statement following his dismissal and the evidence against Tutumlu, this is hard to believe.
As Lars Koch, international head of the Danish NGO Oxfam IBIS, part of Oxfam International, which fights against poverty, sarcastically wrote in Danish newspaper Information afterwards: “He says he doesn’t know anything about his agent’s actions … right!”
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A few months after leaving Swansea, Laudrup’s reputation took another hit as he was appointed head coach of Qatari side Lekhwiya, a move that left Denmark in state of confusion. While his earlier scandals could always be blamed on his rogue agent, there was no was no way to excuse the Ambassador for moving to a dictatorship in the Middle East.
Things got even worse when he, in an interview with local Qatari newspaper The Peninsula, praised the 2022 World Cup that Qatar is infamously hosting. “Yes, I will come [to the tournament]. I will really want to come and see this World Cup,” he said. During the interview, he spoke about almost everything bar the country’s human rights violations, corruption, the awful working conditions at the construction sites and the slave-like reality facing the country’s migrant workers.
Speaking to Danish newspaper BT after joining Al-Rayyan, a club controlled by the royal Qatari family, Laudrup expressed that the criticism of him was misplaced: “I’m still saying, ‘How many Danish companies are represented down here?’ I’m coming down here to do a job, just like if I worked for Maersk [a Danish shipping company] or another Danish company. There are many countries who look differently at some things than we do up at us [in Denmark].
“That’s how it is, and I can’t change that. I can’t make my choices on what other people think. It shouldn’t be that I have to think about what the majority of people think. They think I should stay in Europe, and that anything else than Europe is bad.”
Clearly, Laudrup failed to understand the criticism, something that became painfully clear after another interview with Politiken. “It is their culture, an old culture, and it is not something I can change, but something I have to respect.” At the same time, he repeated that he was looking forward to the World Cup in 2022, and that he ‘would definitely come’.
Not only did Laudrup move to Qatar, but the fact that he defends a government which, according to Amnesty International, discriminate against women, exploit migrant workers and is often accused of funding Islamic State, and a World Cup built on forced labour and systematic abuse, is far from what he once represented.
While he remains the Ambassador, these days he’s often representative of what’s wrong in the world of football: the greed, the money grabbing, the politics and the incessant denial of this
By Toke Møller Theilade @TokeTheilade