In a parallel universe, Michael Laudrup could’ve been a banker. Or he could’ve started his football career with an English club instead of an Italian one. Or ended up at PSV Eindhoven instead of FC Barcelona.
Such a universe would’ve certainly looked different for Laudrup. But also for those of us who remember him as the best footballer of his generation—and possibly the best Danish footballer ever.
But he doesn’t think that dwelling on the past (and its seemingly infinite possibilities) is worthwhile. He tells us that there’s not much to benefit from dwelling on it.
“That's life. You’ll never know the answer to what would’ve happened if you’d done anything differently," he says, eager to change the subject.
We nudge him anyway: "If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice at seventeen, what would it be?”
“The ‘advice back in time’ thing… I'd rather not think about it, and instead spend the same amount of time advising someone I really care about. Better to help someone in a rough situation so that something practical can come from what I (or my family and I) have been through.”
We don’t want to drop the past, but decide to back off and broach the topic again at our next meeting.
It pays off.
Today, when we meet him in the middle of Copenhagen, Laudrup is compelled to reflect on how a career comes to be. He talks about how a career as a football player—or anything at all—stems from a combination of coincidences, what we choose, and what we reject.
F is for Football
Laudrup recalls how one day, while in highschool, he went to the library to check out a book (a popular one among his peers) titled "What Can I Be When I Grow Up?".
He looked up the letter "F". Although football runs in his family and he was already playing for a Copenhagen-based team, the idea of football didn't occur to him. Instead, he was thinking about a finance degree, which was one of many options on his mind.
“I had a library card and was researching a bunch of different degrees and what they involved. But then something powerful suddenly happened.”
The powerful event takes place in the fall of 1983. The rising star is eighteen, and Liverpool Football Club is knocking on his door. They’re offering a three-year contract, and they want it signed yesterday.
But then Liverpool makes demands that send the youngster’s sense of justice and determination into overdrive.
“They call back and say that I need to commit to four years instead of three. And they don’t want to pay me for one of those years, based on the argument that I’ll be mostly learning during my first year. I might’ve thought that was fair, but not after they sprung it on me when I thought we already had a deal. They were confident that I’d say yes to their terms. So I didn't," says Laudrup, attributing his rejection of one of the world's biggest football clubs to his sense of justice.
As many of our readers already know, he ended up signing with Juventus and playing his first two years on loan to Lazio. So a sense of justice sprinkled with a bit of coincidence took the young Laudrup south instead of west.
Since then, he’s never really considered what his career would’ve looked like if it had begun at Liverpool:
“You’ll never know the answer to what would’ve happened if you’d made a different choice, whether in football or in business".
Always under pressure
The budding Laudrup is flown to Rome where he’ll play for relegation-threatened Lazio. The football of the mid-1980s looks very different from that of today. Only two foreigners are allowed on each of Serie A's sixteen teams. So Laudrup is one of only thirty-two foreigners in what was arguably the world's best league at the time.
The pressure is on.
“You’re one of the thirty-two selected, and they don't care if you're nineteen and coming from the Danish league with only seven international matches under your belt. Or if you're Diego Maradona playing for Napoli, or Marco van Basten for Milan. When things went badly, they blamed the foreign players."
Nowadays, young Danish players can begin their football adventures at clubs where they’re just one of many foreigners. Meaning they often have more time to get used to the pressure.
Not so for Laudrup:
“Defeat was tough but what made it worse was how it affected others. In order of priority, the manager received harsh criticism, and then blame was placed on the foreigners. Obviously, you can handle it better if you have eight years of experience instead of six months."
And it’s not just on the pitch that the pressure is on. At Lazio, there’s an urgency to learn Italian. Only one of his teammates speaks a little English—for everything and everyone else, it’s solo Italiano.
Reminiscing about his language struggles, Laudrup blurts out: "I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous! I was more nervous than when I was up for a penalty kick during the European Championship semi-final."
Usually cool and collected, he’s dreading a radio interview that will be conducted in Italian—no translators. And it’s scheduled for just eight months after his arrival in the country.
“I was really nervous. We all know funny stories about non-native speakers who’ve got their wires crossed in interviews. When the day came, I didn't understand all the words or questions, but I got the general idea and managed to string some answers together," he says with a smile. Laudrup believes that when you’re a guest in another country, you should always try to learn the local language.
Different types of leaders
Laudrup has always been the type to step up and take responsibility—leadership responsibility. He believes that there are many ways to do so.
“In football, leadership can take many different forms. There was a time when you were considered a leader in football if you shouted the loudest. Thomas Gravesen and Søren Lerby come to mind as a couple examples. But then you also have other types. The ones who talk a lot because they want to help a lot. A Morten Olsen, for example.”
But Laudrup himself falls into a different leadership category.
“Then you have those who maybe don't say much, but play in such a way that their presence makes you feel like you have a better chance of winning. For example, I played with Ronald Koeman at Barcelona. He wasn't the best defender, but you always trusted him and could pass the ball to him. A lot of people have said similar things about me: ‘When he's there, we always have someone we can pass to’. That's a huge compliment.
Commenting on the nuances of the game
All in all, Laudrup takes a nuanced view of football, including the business and management side.
“Most of it is in the nuances," he says.
You can try asking him yes or no questions. His answers always come with caveats or exceptions. He makes an effort to bring a balanced outlook to his job as a football commentator. And he sticks to his guns, despite the fact that the media prefers hard-hitting, black-and-white takes on topics such as whether a specific manager should be sacked.
“I've experienced football from many different angles. I've run around in there, stood on the sidelines, and now I'm on the outside looking in and talking about it. When it comes down to it, a lot can change in a short space of time. That's why you have to be careful about using words like ‘always’ and ‘never’."
Barcelona: another "coincidence"
It’s 1988 and Juventus wants to buy a fourth foreign player (one more than the per-team limit). This pushes Laudrup to hedge his bets and consider interest from other clubs. One such club is Dutch PSV. Just before the final signing, however, he has second thoughts. The reasoning was that, "Dutch football is more of a place to start your career".
Laudrup goes to Boniperti, the president of Juventus at the time, with whom he has a great relationship. He convinces the president to let him stay on for another year. Juventus sends Ian Rush back to England to meet the three foreign player limit.
One year later, an offer arrives from FC Barcelona. Laudrup has a very difficult conversation with Boniperti, who now wants to keep him on even longer. Needless to say, Laudrup ends up at Barcelona. And the rest is history.
Looking back on his move to Barcelona, Laudrup tells us:
“You can plan your career. But things can suddenly change, as they did multiple times throughout my career. You think you’re headed in one direction and then in a very short time things go down a completely different path".
Laudrup’s “different path” led him to two Spanish championship titles as well as what is today the Champions League trophy.
And the awards most precious to Laudrup were won after he stopped playing.
Top management in football
Laudrup has always been a leader on the pitch. Quiet perhaps, but a leader by virtue of his terrific playing. That's why, when he retired in 1998, a manager position seemed like a natural transition.
It's a very different role, though, as he tells us:
“Being a player is like being an employee in a company. And then all of a sudden you have a management job. You can't reconcile the two. I've often been asked which role is harder. There’s no doubt that it's harder to be a manager".
Which is why Laudrup considers the Capital One Cup he won with Swansea to be his greatest achievement. It was a huge victory for the small Welsh town.
When he became a manager, Laudrup was sure to apply the lessons learned from both the positive and negative examples he’d seen firsthand. He cultivated his own management style, with nuance playing an important role.
He doesn't believe that any person is entirely positive or negative. So he draws inspiration from everyone, even those he’s been at odds with. This includes Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff, who Laudrup now considers to be the best manager he's had in his career.
“If you have a boss who is very demanding, and who throws themself into the job, it’s good for a time. But at some point you feel like you need some air and so you move on to another workplace or another football club.
So while the past serves as a teacher, he doesn't spend time lamenting over how things should’ve been done differently.
Nor has he ever regretted—as many footballers do—ending his career as a player in 1998 when he could’ve gone on for a few more years.
“It was absolutely perfect. Just trying to live a normal everyday life. I hadn't had that since I was seventeen.”
What we’ve learned from Michael Laudrup
Seize the opportunities
You can try to plan out your career, but sometimes unforeseen opportunities arise, and you just have to take chances and see what happens.
Don't look back
There's no point thinking about whether a career decision was the right one, because you’ll never be in that exact same situation again. So look ahead.
See the nuances
There are very few experiences or people that are entirely positive or negative. Allow your point of view to be shaped by the nuances.
There are different types of leaders
There’s room for different types of leaders on a team. The one who shouts loudly and creates motivation. The social one. The one who you can count on to deliver in high-pressure situations.
Michael Laudrup in The CEO
MAN IN THE SHIRT ”The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” - Theodore Roosevelt, Paris, 1910. In our profile series "Man in the Shirt", BARONS men explore what it means to take risks. How do they find courage? What's the most important thing they've learned along the way? And what can the rest of us learn from them?