Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Michael Laudrup

The World Cup in Mexico in 1986 was the first one I was really old enough to appreciate. I have memories of Spain in 1982 - I watched at least one of Northern Ireland's matches and the Brazil-Italy game, probably the best game I'll ever see though I wasn't to know it then. But I was seven in 1982, and though I liked football, it wasn't quite a passion in the way it became in subsequent years. By 1986 I was hooked. 1986 was the first time I bought a Panini sticker album - we filled it, my brother and I - and the first time I read about foreign teams before the tournament. I knew who Ruminegge was. I knew Platini and Boniek and Zico. I had some idea of which teams were expected to do well in the competition. There were a few players from my club involved - Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside - and I wanted them to do well. 1986 is probably also the year my love of Argentinean football began, with Maradona's incredible genius.

I knew Denmark before the tournament. They had been in Ireland's qualification group and had beaten us - handily - 3-0 in Copenhagen and 4-1 in Dublin. They had an exciting attack-minded team, fluid and full of movement and with goals coming from all across their midfield and forward line. They were fresh from appearing in the semi-finals of the 1984 European Championship, where they went out on penalties to Spain. Their fans were fantastic and not unlike Ireland's would be some years later - loud and colourful and seemingly just happy to be there. They called their team "Danish Dynamite". Their forward pairing was the most explosive element of that team. The experienced Preben Elkjaer led the line aggressively, winning high balls and chasing down defenders. Supplying the guile and vision was young Michael Laudrup.

Denmark had been drawn in their first World Cup in the "Group of Death". Every tournament has one - a group with no obviously weak team. This time the other three teams were Germany, Uruguay and Scotland. Denmark could expect to come maybe third out of that group, behind the ever-impressive Germans and Enzo Francescoli's Uruguay.

But Denmark won the group, at a stroll. They beat all of the other teams, including a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay featuring this goal by a then 22-year old Laudrup :

That match was on past my bedtime, probably. During that summer I would get up and watch highlights of football matches played at 1am the previous day. Thats was how I saw that goal and became aware of Laudrup. That was also how I became aware of Denmarks departure from the tournament, beaten again by Spain, 5-1. But that Laudrup goal against Uruguay made a big impression on me. I loved dribblers back then. It seemed to me to be the way football should be played. Get the ball, beat a man with a feint, beat another with a jink, do it again. So obviously, Maradona was a god to me. But that World Cup introduced me to some other great playmakers from less fashionable countries than Argentina - Laudrup from Denmark and Enzo Scifo from Belguim.

Laudrup could dribble brilliantly, of course, his ability to flick the ball from one foot to the other with equal dexterity baffling a succession of defenders, but his game was based more on his ability to pick out an outstanding pass. His first European exposure came when Juventus signed him from Brondby in 1983 and immediately loaned him out to Lazio. He had been bought probably as a replacement for Michel Platini, but Platini was in the peak form of his career, and eventually Laudrup was brought back from his loan period - after two years - to play alongside the Frenchman in place of Boniek. Juventus have a reputation for playing powerful, efficient football and Italian pragmatism usually only accommodates one playmaker, but the Platini-Laudrup combination won Serie A in 1986. When Platini did retire in 1987, Laudrup was unable to dominate games the way his illustrious predecessor had done and Juventus had a couple of years without the success the club was accustomed to.

When Johann Cruijff took over as Coach of Barcelona he set about building his so-called "Dream Team". Only three foreign players could play at any one time alongside homegrown players such as Pep Guardiola and Goikoetxea. Cruijff placed the temperamental Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov up front, with the cultured Ronald Koeman in defence. In between he needed a player who recalled his own playing style, somebody to pull the strings and make things happen. Laudrup was such a player. The Dream Team lived up to its nickname, winning La Liga four times consecutively between 1991-1994 and winning Barcelona's first European Cup at Wembley against Sampdoria in 1992. To bolster an already strong team Cruijff bought Romario, and he and Laudrup struck up an immediate partnership, Laudrup supplying the ammunition for the Brazilian's unfaltering finishes. Romario called Laudrup the best player he ever played with, and with characteristic modesty, said that he was the 5th best player of all-time, behind Pele, Maradona, Romario himself and Zinedine Zidane. This pass is something of a Laudrup trademark, since perfected by Ronaldinho - the player looks one way and moves the ball the other :

However, the presence of three such high-profile foreigners in Barcelona's ranks meant that the three had to be rotated. Laudrup was left out of the starting line-up against AC Milan in the European Cup final in 1994, Barcelona lost 0-4, and Laudrup left, moving controversially to Real Madrid. In his first season Madrid won La Liga, ending Barca's period of dominance. Laudrup would only stay for one more season but impressed Real's fans and players so much that he was voted the 12th best player ever to play for the club by Marca in 2002. Raul called him the best player he has ever played with, above the likes of Zidane, Figo, Redondo and Ronaldo. When he left Madrid he floated for a while, playing in Japan and for Ajax before retiring.

If he had been born in South America or in one of Europe's traditional football powers, then Laudrup would be held in higher regard than he is. He was the classic Number 10, exceptionally technically gifted, a great passer, dribbler and capable of fabulous long-range shooting. Platini once praised him as one of the most talented players in the history of the game, lamenting only his lack of selfishness which meant that he scored too few goals. But there is something intrinsically Scandinavian in Laudrup's love of an assist, his appreciation of his team-mates, and ability to find them with some seemingly impossible balls.

He did not help himself in terms of how posterity views him : In 1992 he was involved in a dispute with the Danish coach, Richard Moller Nielsen, over the teams tactics, and quit during qualification. When Denmark were summoned at the last minute to replace a disqualified Yugoslavia at the European Championships in Sweden, his younger brother, Brian, also a gifted playmaker, took Michael's position as Denmark won the tournament, shocking Holland and Germany to do so. When he returned to the Danish squad, they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and were eliminated early from Euro 1996. In France in 1998, Laudrup enjoyed a last hurrah on the international stage, playing as Captain alongside his brother as Denmark reached the quarter-finals where they were eliminated narrowly, 3-2, by finalists Brazil.

The game before that, where Denmark had routed a fancied Nigeria side, featured two typical examples of Laudrup's vision and unselfishness in the passes for the first and third of Denmark's goals, and is a good clip to finish with :

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fernando Redondo

Most of the players I have a fondness for - the ones I loved most as a boy, the ones I enjoy watching most now - are attackers. Its is no coincidence that many of the greats of the history of the game were natural Number 10s. Maradona, Pele, Platini, Cruyff, Zidane, Puskas and Baggio all played in the space between midfield and forward line, shaping attacks with clever angled passes, explosive dribbling and intuitive misdirection. The player in that position can, if possessing sufficient skill and tactical acumen, utterly control a game. He is the conduit through which each of his teams attacks must pass. When it goes well, he gets all the praise and all of the glamour.

But the modern game, where players are fitter and faster and stronger, has made it more difficult for these conjurors to practice their art. There is less time on a football pitch now than at any time before, less space. Speed of thought must be even quicker, ball control more acute. The modern midfielder is a powerful athlete, capable of covering miles at high speed in every game, and a jack of all trades - he must be a good tackler, a perceptive reader of the game, capable of passing long and short, able to dribble if the need arises and apt to break into the box to score a goal. Players like Steven Gerrard and Michael Ballack typify this new breed, while the traditional Number 10 slowly dies out except for the odd abberative child genius - Wayne Rooney qualifies, as does Yoann Gourcuff at AC Milan (Bordeaux this Season). Only in Maradona-worshipping Argentina is there a concerted effort to promote the playmaker in the classic mould as a workable part of a modern squad. Accordingly, Argentina have produced an astounding number of high-quality Number 10s in the last two decades, most of them cursed to live with "Next Maradona" status from their youth-team debuts for their country. A list of such names would include Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Andreas D'Alessandro, Javier Saviola and the two main rivals for the title of the newest new Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.

Less-heralded than the Number 10, but just as important to the way Argentinean teams play their football, and also threatened by the modern midfielders need to be a great all-rounder, is the Number 5. In the Argentine tradition, the Number 5 shirt goes to a central midfielder rather than a defender. The last great Argentine Number 5 was Fernando Redondo. Redondo was a defensive midfielder, but not quite in the vein of a Makelele or a Keane. Instead, he was a deep-lying playmaker. He broke up opposition attacks with sharp tackling and set in motion attacks of his own with crisp, short passing. He didn't race forward and break into the box. He didn't score many goals. He didn't cover every blade of grass for 90 minutes. But he could control a game like no other central midfielder I have ever seen. He played with his head up, always reading the movement of the players around him, always aware of where his next pass was going. The Argentine football character is founded just as much on steely, often brutal aggression as it is on sublime skill, and Redondo was as combative as a ball-winning Midfielder must be. His tackling was hard and he was a big man - a formidable physical presence in the centre of the pitch, around which his team revolved. His technique was extraordinary and he was a flashier Number 5 than his most recent heir in the position, Javier Mascherano - he showed a control and understanding of a football comparable with most of the Number 10s listed above. Playing right at the fulcrum of a team - in the heart of midfield - requires a different personality than that needed to operate in the "hole" behind the forward line. Quiet players such as Zidane and Riquelme can thrive further up the pitch. But in the heart of the battle, the congested central area of the field, squeezed and stretched between two sets of defenders and attackers, the central midfielder must display a big personality, the will to dominate his own team as well as the opposition. Redondo needed to be able to destroy and create in an instant, to orchestrate and bully his team-mates and to see the bigger tactical picture at all times. All of which he did, beautifully.

But he under-achieved, given his tremendous talent. He spent his first years as a professional in Buenos Aires with Argentinos Juniors, then spent four years at Tenerife before moving to Real Madrid. Finally playing for a Big club, he won La Liga twice, and the Champions League twice. He was probably Madrid's most important player in their 1999-2000 Champions League campaign, dominating Roy Keane at Old Trafford in the quarter finals in a manner seldom seen. His backheel to set up Raul is just a moment of genius :

After that triumph, Madrid, amazingly, sold Redondo to AC Milan. Madrid's Ultras literally rioted at the news.
His two seasons at Milan were blighted by injury, and he rarely played. He refused to accept wages from the club, believing that, as he was giving them nothing, then they should give him nothing. These injury problems were what led to his premature retirement in 2003. The mixture of stubbornness and an uncommon sense of personal principles suggested by his stance over wages is perhaps what ruined his International Career. He reportedly refused a call-up to the 1990 squad because he disagreed with the teams defensive tactics. And he would not play for the team when Daniel Passarella was coach because he refused to play anywhere other than central midfield, altough the Argentine press speculated it was because Passarella demanded that all his players cut their long hair, and the ever-stubborn Redondo refused.

He only played 29 times for Argentina and appeared at only one World Cup, in America in 1994, where he was probably his teams most consistent player. That squad had the potential to win a tournament lacking a truly great team. It had the strong spine needed to win a World Cup, with Ruggeri playing in his third World Cup at the centre of defence, Redondo running things in front of him, a seemingly rejuvenated Maradona prompting the forwards, who were the legendary Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. But Argentina, after a great start, were sent reeling by Maradona's expulsion on a doping charge, and were knocked out in the game of the tournament, 3-2, by Romania. This lack of World Cup exposure is most likely the reason that Redondo's recognition factor is not commensurate with his talent or stature within the game.

In Argentina, his importance is acknowledged. The emergence of a startlingly talented young defensive midfielder in the classic Argentine mould at Boca Juniors over the last few years saw the youngster accorded the Number 5 equivalent of the dreaded "New Maradona" title. Fernando Gago has been dubbed the New Redondo. As if that wasn't enough to live up to, in 2007 he moved to Real Madrid...

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