The Dane who helped Iniesta dream

Words By Musa Okwonga Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 30, 2018

It’s not fair, really. There are some men who could easily earn a living off their looks alone, and they end up as world-class footballers into the bargain. Paolo Maldini is the most obvious example, coming across like Cilian Murphy’s older brother, and then there’s Michael Laudrup, who could from a certain distance pass for a young Robert Redford. Laudrup, like Enzo Francescoli, has the rare honour of being the idol of one of the world’s greatest midfielders; while Francescoli was revered by Zinedine Zidane, Laudrup found a lifelong admirer in Andres Iniesta.

Imagine inspiring Iniesta. Well, Laudrup didn’t have to. Watching the Spaniard, the influences are obvious; when he runs with the ball, it rattles between his ankles as he eases through the merest of gaps, and when he passes it he lofts it over prone and exposed defenders, who are fooled by his lack of backlift. Yet he and the Dane are dissimilar in one key respect; whilst Iniesta at his peak was supreme in both defensive and attacking roles, Laudrup was a more obvious protagonist in the final third. This can be seen from his goal tally, where he scored 37 times in 104 internationals, whereas Iniesta has so far netted 13 times in 123 appearances for his country.

Yet whilst Laudrup troubled the scoresheet fairly regularly, he was most known as a creator. He was one of very few players not only to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona but to be decisive for them in title races; after claiming four straight national championships and a European Cup at the Nou Camp, he went and promptly won La Liga with Real. His move of course angered Johan Cruyff, the coach with whom a falling-out had hasted his controversial departure from Barca, and the Dutchman would have been further irked by the fact that Laudrup led Real to a 5-0 win over his former club in the clasico – just a season after he had masterminded a 5-0 victory over Madrid in the same fixture.

If anyone was more upset by Laudrup’s transfer away from Barcelona than Cruyff, though, it was probably Romario, with whom the Dane enjoyed the kind of chemistry most recently seen in HBO detective dramas. Laudrup, all understated elegance and quiet brilliance, was the perfect foil to Romario’s carnival of chaos. Romario made passes of startling speed and steepness all along the opposition’s back line, and Laudrup invariably found him with passes stabbed or flicked whilst he and tens of thousands of fans were staring the other way.

Yes: it’s important to say that Laudrup was a proponent of the no-look pass long before Ronaldinho rose to the top of the game. Whilst Ronaldinho’s playfulness always suggested that he was going to pull off such a trick, Laudrup had a disarmingly innocent demeanour, a little like that morally immaculate politician whom you suddenly discover has long been dodging his taxes. Whilst Ronaldinho was the jheri-curled genius whose every movement carried a hint of mischief, Laudrup appeared as upstanding as Javier Zanetti, with his haircut somewhere between school prefect and choirboy. He’s the last person you expected to find stealing from the tuckshop. But there he was, ransacking the opposition’s back four just as ruthlessly as Ronaldinho ever did, one of the few attackers good enough to dribble towards an apparently impregnable defence and find it disintegrating before him.

Laudrup was probably most famous for being at the helm of the 1986 Danish World Cup team, a side who before their untimely exit played some of the most stunning football seen in that tournament. Denmark didn’t go all the way that year, but they did enough to pass into legend – and Laudrup led them then, as he so often marshalled the finest sides in Europe. But his legacy goes far beyond Real, Barca, Lazio, Ajax, and Juventus, the clubs that can be found on his extraordinary CV. He, like Cruyff, allowed Iniesta to dream; he enabled one of the game’s most devastating playmakers to imagine what was truly possible. And, in the end, there can few greater accolades than that.

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