Laudrup testament to passion of Clasico

PALMA DE MALLORCA - Michael Laudrup knows from bitter personal experience all about the passionate intensity and even hatred stirred up by Spain's 'Clasico' between his former clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid.

With the La Liga giants clashing in the Catalan capital on Monday, the Dane told Reuters of the hostile reception he got on his return to the Nou Camp after he switched to Real in the mid-1990s and why the game is a unique contest in global football.

An athletic 46, with thick brown hair and striking blue eyes, Laudrup said he never expected the animosity that greeted him at Barca's giant arena in May 1995, when Real had a chance to wrap up the title in the lair of their enemy.

"This is the first game in my career where something from the outside had an influence on my play," Laudrup said in an interview in his office after leading a training session with Real Mallorca, the La Liga club he now coaches.

"Every time I got the ball it sounded like 100,000 people whistling. I thought, well, I've been here for five years and I've done so many things for them and they for me and I expected a few whistles but I never thought it would be so heavy."

Real lost 1-0, the goal scored by the man who is now Laudrup's assistant at Mallorca, Miguel Angel Nadal, uncle of tennis world number one and Mallorca native Rafa Nadal.

They wrapped up the title the next week and Laudrup said he will always remember the words of Real's then coach Argentine Jorge Valdano, who is the club's current director general.

"After the match I was a little sad, I was a little angry, I was a little bit of everything because I could understand it but then I couldn't," Laudrup said.

"Valdano just said to me: 'I realised today how much they loved you here'.

"The more they love you the more they hate you, especially when you come back with Real Madrid.

"Nowadays I don't have any problem. There are always going to be five or 10 or 20 Ultras (radical fans) who will never forgive me but I can live with that."

TABLES TURNED

Laudrup, who was known as "Michelino" while at Barcelona, is uniquely placed to comment on the significance of Monday's 'Clasico', having played for both clubs and coached in several countries including Denmark, Russia and Spain.

He also played alongside current Barca coach Pep Guardiola in Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team', which won the European Cup in 1992 and swept to four straight La Liga titles from 1991-1994.

One of his finest moments with Barca was their 5-0 thrashing of Real at the Nou Camp in January 1994 and he helped the Madrid club turn the tables at their Bernabeu stadium almost exactly a year later with a 5-0 success of their own.

Unlike most other city derbies or matches between top clubs in other countries, Spain's 'Clasico' is loaded with significance on several different levels, Laudrup said.

As well as the football rivalry, the Catalans have a proud regional identity set against central government in Madrid. The resentment is fuelled by constant sniping between newspapers, radio stations and television broadcasters loyal to either camp.

"You have to know a little bit about the Spanish story to understand the rivalry," Laudrup said.

"I think right now these are the two best teams in the world," he added.

"But even in previous seasons this game has always been so special, not just because of the 90,000 in the stadium or the millions of Spaniards watching on TV but because it's a game that is watched around the whole world.

"So it means that also outside Spain it's something very, very special."

SLIGHT FAVOURITE

Frederiksberg-born Laudrup also played for Juventus in the Turin derby against Torino and for Lazio against city rivals Roma but said neither those games, the Milan derby nor Celtic v Rangers or Galatasaray-Fenerbahce compared to the 'Clasico'.

"They all have these big, big matches but I think Real Madrid-Barcelona is different."

As for Monday's match, Laudrup said the home team, in this case Barcelona, would always be the slight favourite.

Barca would probably see more of the ball but Real had dangerous players who could cause damage on the counter-attack, he said, adding that he hadn't yet decided where to watch the game, which kicks off at 2000 GMT.

Asked if his sympathies were with Barcelona or Real, he was sensibly non-committal.

"If you are talking only about football my five years (in Barcelona) were the most important in my career and they treated me very well in Catalunya.

"Madrid also treated me fantastically even though I was one of the reasons (when I was at Barca) why they didn't win anything for a long time, and I will never forget that.

"So I cannot choose. I would not choose."