EXCLUSIVE: Footballing royalty MICHAEL LAUDRUP glided across pitches with balletic grace. Here, in a rare interview, he talks Cruyff and Cup finals… and why he’s the only man loved by Barcelona AND Real Madrid!
- Michael Laudrup was footballing royalty, but since retirement, lives a quiet life
- He is proud of his work with Swansea, and speaks out on working with Cruyff
- The Dane is one of the few men to be loved by both Real Madrid and Barcelona
In the foyer of a plush Copenhagen hotel, a distinguished gentleman stands on a staircase in front of a camera. Sportsmail’s photographer, Kevin Quigley, only has a limited window to get the right shot and everything is a little hectic but, as flashbulbs pop, a young receptionist watches and smiles.
‘The best,’ he says, as we catch each other’s glance. It’s clear he wouldn’t have been born when the gentleman on the staircase glided across pitches with a balletic grace but that doesn’t matter. The young receptionist knows he is in the presence of footballing royalty and nods again. ‘The best.’
Many would agree. Michael Laudrup is 58 now and lives a quiet life with his wife, Siw. He keeps fit by playing Padel Tennis and, when he is not on court, by running after his four grandchildren — the city’s famous Tivoli Gardens, with all its amusements, is regularly visited.
Laudrup hasn’t been actively involved in football since 2018, when a two-year stint managing Al Rayyan in Qatar ended. He still watches many games, through his role as analyst on Champions League nights for Danish station Viaplay, but has no burning desire to commit to another project.
‘It’s much more intense as a manager than as a player,’ explains Laudrup. ‘People ask me, “What’s the toughest? Being a player or a manager?” Please! You can’t compare. I know it’s the same game, but they are two different worlds.’
Michael Laudrup is footballing royalty, as the experience of having his portrait taken showed
Laudrup is one of the few men who could be celebrated by both Barcelona and Real Madrid
But the way Laudrup inhabited those worlds means he continues to be inundated with requests for interviews and he could give 20 per week, especially when Barcelona and Real Madrid are due to meet. He only grants them sparingly, however, and 18 months after we first made contact, Laudrup has agreed to meet to mark a special anniversary.
In good time, there will be some wonderful stories and perceptive observations but the first place to start is Swansea: February 24 marked 10 years since he oversaw the most perfect day at Wembley, a 5-0 dismantling of Bradford in the League Cup final, having beaten Chelsea and Liverpool on the way.
As he sits down, cradling a cappuccino, an iPad is opened. On the screen is a picture of him hoisting the trophy aloft, with a smile of absolute contentment. That same smile appears as he revisits the scene of what remains Swansea’s proudest moment.
‘The most important win I ever had,’ he says, which is quite a statement when you consider he lifted the European Cup in the same stadium. ‘A small club, a small team. It is one thing winning with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Ajax, even Brondby. But this? It was so very, very special.
‘I remember saying to the players, “Maybe some of you there will be a chance to play a final next year. Maybe for some of you this will never happen again. You just don’t know — so enjoy this”. People asked if I enjoyed games as a manager. How can you enjoy a game? You never enjoy a game!
‘But this one, at 3-0 in the 50th minute, it was over. It was special, too, for the Bradford fans. Nobody could take their moment away from them, a League Two side reaching Wembley. Even at 3-0, 4-0 there was a fantastic atmosphere. It’s not just rare for that to happen. It’s impossible.’
The symbolism of the venue provides a corridor back to his playing days — and what playing days they were. Wembley provided the pinnacle with Barcelona, a 1-0 win over Sampdoria in May 1992 securing the biggest of 21 major honours.
Of that night, he recalls: ‘Johan Cruyff said to us, “Hey, no problem. Enjoy it. It’s so special. You have played two years to be here. First you had to win the league. You are two years getting to here. Now, enjoy it”. And we did it. It was an incredible game.’
Laudrup hails League Cup success with Swansea City as one of his greatest achievements
He started out at Brondby before joining Lazio and then Juventus as a young player in Europe
Starting out at Brondby, he rejected a move to Liverpool in 1983 over a contract disagreement to join Lazio. He had two seasons in Rome, before joining Juventus. It was sink or swim for Laudrup then and his experience of how he settled in Italy, as the most coveted young player in Europe, illustrates how much the game has changed — and not necessarily for the better.
‘I didn’t know any words apart from “si” and “non”,’ explains Laudrup. ‘Can you imagine? You have 20-plus staff, 35 people; they’re sitting there, watching you. They are laughing, everything. You don’t know what **** they’re saying. What do you do? So I listened to the words in training. OK, Italian? The pronunciation is not so difficult. I bought the sports papers, Corriere dello Sport, Tuttosport. And I watched films because in Italy, they dub it so you could watch Sylvester Stallone speaking Italian over English. In a few months, I could manage it.’
This wouldn’t happen now. There are many overseas footballers who have joined Premier League clubs but, after five or more years, still don’t speak English. Laudrup — a well-travelled and intelligent man whose brother, Brian, was also an outstanding player — recognises why things have changed.
‘I had to otherwise I’d have felt so lonely,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know if I’d be in Italy for two, four or 15 years. It’s a gift to speak other languages. I wanted to try to learn. I say the same to anyone who lives abroad: try to learn, not to speak perfectly, but at least you can have a small chat.’
This turns out to be anything but a small chat. Over the course of 90 minutes, his company is fascinating. In today’s market, Laudrup’s value would have been beyond £100million, an attacking midfielder who could run, score and had more tricks in his repertoire than David Copperfield.
Laudrup’s value in the modern-day transfer market would surely have exceeded £100m
At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, in that wonderfully iconic red-and-white striped Hummel kit, Laudrup operated in a similar orbit as Diego Maradona. The iPad comes out again and we watch a quite beautiful goal he scored in a 6-1 rout of Uruguay that leaves him wistful.
‘I hear people ask, “Who is the best in history?”,’ he says. ‘Oh, it must be Messi! Older ones will say Pele. For others, it will be Maradona. I don’t ever want that argument. I just say one thing — and it’s fact. I played a lot of years in Italy against Maradona… and I saw what defenders did to him.
‘I saw what defenders from my team did to him. Every weekend! They killed him! Fortunately, now, the referees with all the cameras and all that stuff, they protect the great offensive players — Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, all these. That’s good.
‘In the 1980s, I remember the president at Juventus, (Giampiero) Boniperti saying to me, “It’s tough but you should have seen it in the 1960s and 1970s! If the referee wasn’t looking, next thing (he makes an elbow gesture) two of your teeth are going out!” That was then.’
We seem to live in age, though, where the ‘then’ has almost been forgotten, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo being so good they have distorted everything that went before. The idea there has to be something definitive is a concept he finds alien.
‘Why are we always trying to say who is the best?’ Laudrup asks. ‘Let’s look at the players who made a difference to you. Close your eyes — maybe there are five, maybe there are 10 or 20 that were special for you. Stick with that memory.
‘I hear younger generations say, “Ah, Barcelona, the first European Cup was against Sampdoria. Who are Sampdoria?” Young people! They don’t know! What a team that was! (Gianluca) Vialli, (Roberto) Mancini, (Moreno) Mannini, (Pietro) Vierchowod. Sampdoria was a story similar to Swansea.
Laudrup has a number of anecdotes about his time with Johan Cruyff when they were at Barca
‘In football and also off the pitch, the world we live in. Everything has to be the best or the worst; why can’t we stay in the middle? If something is good now, why must it be the best you’ve seen? People ask me that and I’ll say, “no, no”. I don’t understand that way of thinking.’
Fortunately, he understands football and sees it through the prism of Johan Cruyff. Laudrup was blessed to play for outstanding managers, such as Giovanni Trappatoni and Jorge Valdano but Cruyff was different, a man so ahead of his peers his influence is still felt across the sport today.
Last Friday marked the seventh anniversary of Cruyff’s passing and Laudrup has enough anecdotes to fill a book. What a blessing for him that sliding doors moment in 1988, when he could have joined PSV, passed and led him to Barcelona 12 months later.
‘PSV Eindhoven was a very good team,’ he explains. ‘They’d won the European Cup. But I didn’t want to go to Holland. You don’t go to Holland after you’ve been that high (in Italy). I was close but in the end I had my contract at Juventus.
‘There was the rule for only three foreign players being allowed in Italy and five days later they announced Ian Rush was going back to Liverpool. If I’d gone to PSV, maybe I would never have gone to Barcelona. I don’t want to say coincidence, but sometimes it’s the choices you make.’
Cruyff, centre, helped to take the Dane (right) to new heights (Ronald Koeman on the left)
What a choice it turned out to be. Cruyff took him to new heights, making him a totem in what became known as ‘The Dream Team’ with Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and a young Pep Guardiola at their heart.
‘I remember Cruyff shouting in drills because Pep is right-footed; he can play with his left foot, but, let’s be honest, it’s not fantastic,’ Laudrup says with a telling smile. ‘Always we played a lot with the two touches. Stop with your left, play with your right. No problem! Then you would do it in reverse.’
It all sounds straightforward but the widening of the smile indicates there is more to this anecdote.
‘Ah, Pep!’ he continues. ‘In the beginning, he did stop with the right. But then he would open his body, turn and pass with his right. Cruyff was mad, shouting! “Pep! Pep! Two feet!” Next time you interview him, just say regards from Michael… tell him he said you have to play with two feet!’
‘I came to Barcelona at 24 and learned more from Cruyff in two years than I learned from anyone else. He didn’t need two minutes to explain.’
He is endearing and it illustrates why he is in the unique position of being adored both in Barcelona and Madrid (he moved to the Bernabeu in 1994) having won Clasicos 5-0 for both teams and it is this, perhaps, that best explains where he fits into the Pantheon.
Laudrup retired in 1998 having helped Ajax win the Eredivisie. His career belongs to a different era but his legacy endures, not that it impresses granddaughter Flora, who is four and nonplussed when told “Grandpa was good at football” when he is asked for autographs and photos.
‘Sometimes I find it incredible,’ he says. ‘I stopped my career 25 years ago, you know, but boys aged 12, 14, 16, they come up. Once, I was in the airport in Spain. This father approaches with his son, who is 10 years old or something.
Laudrup retired in 1998, having helped Ajax win the Eredivisie, but still poses with young fans
‘He says, “Can I take a picture with my son?” Of course! “Son, this man was a very, very good player. A fantastic player! Madrid and Barcelona!”. The son looks up and said, “Si… Cinco-Zero (5-0), Cinco-Zero”. That was his only comment.’
He pauses, as if still struggling to process the experience.
‘Football it has been such an important part of my life since I was a child,’ says Laudrup. ‘I was playing for fun from when I was six. My father, Finn, was a professional. Then it became a little more than a hobby. Then I realised I was good at it and it became my profession.’
Self-effacing as he is, Laudrup would never say so but he was significantly better than ‘good’ — this career was a timeless masterpiece. Those requests for pictures will not end any time soon.
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