Tuesday, November 21, 2006
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 :