This piece originally appeared on TheFalseNine.co.uk.
There is a cliché in music journalism that the Velvet Underground were not properly appreciated until ten or twenty years after their best music was released. Having initially missed out on commercial success, it was only when younger bands influenced by Lou Reed and company came through that the masses realised just how brilliant they were.
Thus it is said that while not many bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, almost everyone who did loved it and was inspired to start their own band. The group’s greatness comes not from their songs’ popular impact but from their lasting influence; from the legions of imitators who took their prototype and developed it to make independent art-rock a global juggernaut.
Michael Laudrup is football’s Velvet Underground. While there were earlier players who had individual aspects of his game – Franz Beckenbauer had the football brain, Gerson the ability to dictate games for fun and George Best the ambidextrous technique and commitment to footballing beauty – no-one had put those elements together so perfectly until Laudrup. He was the prototype of the modern playmaker; the first and therefore the greatest.
Like the Velvet Underground, Laudrup has had to wait. His early years were notable both for their artistic excellence and their lack of success. Having burst onto the scene in his native Denmark with KB and Brøndby, he moved to Juventus in 1983 but spent two seasons on loan to lowly Lazio.
Having impressed enough to earn a starting position for the 1985/86 season, Laudrup returned to Turin to win the first trophies of his career. A starring role at the 1986 World Cup followed, but the next three years were less fruitful as Juve struggled to adapt to life after Michel Platini. In 1989 the Dane joined Johan Cruyff at Barcelona and a promising career became a glorious one.
Cruyff’s Barcelona won four straight La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey and, most importantly, the 1992 European Cup. The pairing of visionary manager and technically perfect player allowed both parties to break new ground, win a shedload of medals and set football on course to become the skill-obsessed manipulation of space it is today.
Laudrup famously missed the final curtain coming down on Barcelona’s golden era, omitted for their 4-0 defeat to Milan in the 1994 Champions League final due to restrictions on the use of foreign players. After the game, the Rossoneri manager Fabio Capello said that “Laudrup was the guy I feared, but Cruyff left him out, and that was his mistake.”
His later years, spent at Real Madrid, Vissel Kobe and Ajax, were less successful but nonetheless saw him produce yet more beautiful play, cementing his legacy as the football aesthete’s lasting favourite.
Everything Zinedine Zidane and Andrés Iniesta have become known for was pioneered by Laudrup. The stunning combination of balletic grace, flawless control and perfect vision that characterises both players was developed by coaches who had seen how effective that skillset had been for Denmark’s greatest ever player.
More than his statistics, his medals and his ludicrously watchable YouTube highlights reels, Zidane and Iniesta are Laudrup’s real legacy; his lasting contribution to football. The success they have achieved is his as much as theirs, and for that reason he stands head and shoulders above them both as the greatest of the lot.