Thursday, March 18, 2010
The Life of Brian
Everyone knows footballers live a life less ordinary, but Brian Laudrup must be in a select band of one to have personal experience of the inside of a car boot after being whisked away from the clutches of irate Fiorentina fans.
"It was a complete nightmare," Laudrup told Soccernet of his first season of calico, the topsy-turvy 1992-93 campaign which saw La Viola metamorphose from title pretenders to relegation fodder. "The fans were so disappointed. I don't think they wanted to beat us up, but it was a very hostile atmosphere. Cars were set alight, armed police on the streets, so it was quite hectic.
''I got back home, and I felt at the time that if that is what football is about, maybe I had chosen the wrong occupation. Football is about having fun, it's about the love of the game, and obviously this is something you have to go through, you have ups and downs."
What was supposed to be a dream move to "the absolute No.1" league in the world, as Laudrup himself described it, would turn sourer still after being loaned to AC Milan. Just one of a glut of foreign stars under the yoke of the 'three foreigners rule', Laudrup was used sparingly, and a career that had started promisingly at Brondby before a move to German side Bayer Uerdingen and then Bayern Munich was in danger of stalling at the San Siro. The dolce vita it was not. Even so, when Rangers came calling in 1994 - following Milan's Champions League final rout of Barcelona - Laudrup can be forgiven for not immediately having jumped at the chance.
"If you had asked me three or four years before my decision to go to Rangers whether I was going to play in Scotland, I would have said 'No chance,''' he said. ''I felt the way I played, I'm not physically the strongest, and maybe going to Scotland, where it's a lot about tempo and the physical game, I would have said no.
"I spoke to my wife about it, and she said, 'Let's go up there, take a look at it, we can always go back and say no.' When I met Walter Smith, I knew right away that I wanted to play for him, I wanted to play for a club which at the time was one of the few that really went for me and wanted to buy me after the two difficult years in Italy. I've said on many occasions that it was the best move I ever made, the best four years of my career."
Three Scottish league winner's medals, and a place in Rangers folklore as part of the team that completed the record-equalling nine-in-a-row streak of titles, are testament to the impact the move had on Laudrup's career. The Dane is considered by many to be the club's best-ever foreign player, and where Italy had proved a tortuous goldfish bowl for the prodigiously-gifted winger, Scotland provided solace.
"We were beaten by AEK Athens to miss out on the Champions League,'' he said. ''We were beaten by Falkirk in the League Cup, and we were beaten at Ibrox by Celtic, and that was my first week. Three defeats - that was a great start. I was really down, and I thought, 'My God, this is going to be tough.' Then, after the Celitc game, a lot of Rangers fans came to me and said, 'Brian, don't worry. We'll get back, and hopefully you'll win the league for us.' That way of looking at things was absolutely amazing.''
With the likes of Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Alexei Mikhailichenko in the side, the Rangers team of the mid-1990s was hardly short of premium-grade imports, and the Dane feels the SPL is wrongly maligned as being 'easy' for top-class players. "It annoys me in a way,'' he said. ''The Scottish league, obviously, isn't the number one league in Europe. I'm not going to say that either, but it's certainly not the worst. If you go to Scotland, no matter how good you are, and you think, 'OK, now I'm just going to turn up on a Saturday and do the business' it won't work. I felt that in my four years, I kept my level, and maybe I even bettered it at some point as I could still deliver when I played for Denmark, at European Championship level or even World Cup level, and I think that's the best testament that you're not going to become a worse player by going to Scotland."
Laudrup's move to Glasgow looks all the more amazing when set against the context that he arrived at Rangers a European champion after Denmark had defied ridiculous odds to win Euro '92 in Sweden. After his team had been hauled off the beach - as legend has it - and drafted into the tournament at the eleventh-hour to replace Yugoslavia, coach Richard Moller Nielsen shocked the players with talk of the Henri Delaunay trophy.
"When we went to Sweden, among the players, we were thinking, 'Let's get the three games out of the way as well as possible, and let's get back on the beach'," laughed Laudrup. ''When I got back to Denmark for the first training session, the coach got us together and said, 'Listen guys, we've got six days to prepare and then we'll go to Sweden. We'll go there to win the European Championship.' We were laughing, thinking 'What is he on about? What has he been having for lunch?' I think what he did right there was to try and convince his players to go over there and try and do it. We were complete underdogs, no-one even expected a point from us."
After squeezing through the group stage, the reigning European champions, the Netherlands, were humbled in the semi-finals before Germany, the World Cup holders, succumbed as the Danes brought home the bacon. "The Germans and the Dutch both underestimated us, that's for sure," added Laudrup, who had only just returned from a serious knee injury himself. "They thought we were going to be beaten easily."
One man conspicuous by his absence on the team photos celebrating the win was Brian's elder brother, Michael. Differences with Moller Nielsen meant he did not go to Sweden, giving his kid brother the chance to catch up in the medal department as, despite the Euro win, there is room to suggest that Brian may not even be the best footballer in his family.
Michael was selected by the Danish FA as the greatest Danish footballer of all time in 2006, but it was Brian who emerged with the broader smile on the day they faced each other in the 1994 Champions League final - though neither were on the pitch when Brian's Milan ridiculed Michael's Barca.
"I managed to play 17 games that season and won the league, and played in the semi-final of the Champions League. Unfortunately, I didn't take part in the final, but my brother and myself looked at each other in the stands in Athens, and watched the game. I enjoyed it more than he did, and that was a funny chapter in a lot of ways," said Laudrup, who now divides his time between punditry for Danish TV and running a youth football camp with former Danish international goalkeeper Lars Hogh.
Coincidentally, both brothers finished their playing careers at Ajax, Michael stopping two years before a foot injury forced Brian to hang up his boots in 2000. The pair, though, can occasionally still be seen turning out for Lyngby Old Boys in their native Denmark.
"My brother lives in Madrid now, but when he's home, we try and get a game. We played for three or four years, and we won the league for three or four years, it was a real surprise," said Laudrup ironically. However, suggestions that the two brothers (who were both named among Pele's 125 Greatest Living Footballers in 2004 and boast 186 Danish caps between them), tipped the scales somewhat unfairly in their team's favour are wide of the mark.
"There are a few other good players, not only Michael, but there's Henrik Larsen who top scored for Denmark at Euro '92, and Torben Piechnik, who played for Liverpool and in the '92 final,'' he said. ''We've gathered a number of players in that team. It's still great fun. We're getting older now, and you can feel it. The youngest players that can play in that league are 33 and we're into our 40s, so I think we're not as good as we were, but we have a lot of fun, that's the main thing."