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Swapping Barca for the Bernabeu

Barcelona v Real Madrid, La Liga
Venue: Camp Nou, Spain Date: Sunday 29 November Kick-off: 1800 GMT
Coverage: Live on Sky Sports One, live text commentary on BBC Sport website with Chris Bevan and follow Jonathan Stevenson in Barcelona on Twitter

Michael Laudrup in action for Barca and Real
Laudrup moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid in the summer of 1994

By Jonathan Stevenson

On Sunday, two of sport's fiercest rivals recommence battle in the cauldron atmosphere of the Camp Nou in Barcelona.

As the players representing Barca and Real Madrid fight to defend the honour of their club's shirt before nearly 100,000 maniacal fans, one man adored by both sets of supporters will watch as a neutral.

Michael Laudrup, one of the most gifted footballers of his or any generation and a man who brought success to both Barca and the Bernabeu, will be that rarest of observers during the clash that splits Spain in two - an impartial one.

In 12 months of playing in El Clasico - the most crucial games of the season - I had won 10-0

Michael Laudrup

And despite having played with such distinction for both clubs in his trophy-laden career and competed in the fixture on numerous occasions, Laudrup is almost salivating at the prospect of this El Clasico.

"I want to see a great game of football and I'm pretty confident that will happen," the 45-year-old told BBC Sport.

"This match, it has absolutely everything. Even if you are watching on television you can see it is something very, very special.

"The fans of both clubs treat most games like you would in England if you were going to the theatre - they expect to be entertained. But in this game, they behave differently. It is like the Champions League final, only more important and the noise they make is incredible."

Laudrup is one of the few footballers on Earth who knows what it means to play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid and is arguably the only one who is still loved in Spain's two biggest cities.

Usually, moving between the two - or even playing for both - is considered tantamount to treason by supporters of the jilted party, such is the intensity of their rivalry.

Born: Frederiksberg, Denmark, on 15 June, 1964
Clubs: KB (1981-82), Brondby (1982-83), Juventus (1983-89), Lazio (loan, 1983-85), Barcelona (1989-94), Real Madrid (1994-96), Vissel Kobe (1996-97), Ajax (1997-98)
Honours: One European Cup, one European Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup, seven league titles, four domestic cups
Did you know? In 1999, Laudrup was voted the best foreign player in La Liga for the past 25 years

It is often said that Barca and Real, symbolising the essence of the areas of Catalonia and Castile where they are based, mean more to their respective cultures than most teams. When they meet, there is more at stake than just the bragging rights of two of the world's biggest clubs.

Bernd Schuster and Luis Figo are still vilified for swapping Barca's blue-and-red for the all-white of Real; Luis Enrique's reputation in Madrid was left in tatters when he left to join Barca in 1996; and Brazilian Ronaldo and Argentine Javier Saviola upset Catalans by then playing for Real.

Figo's switch from Barca to Real in 2000 caused so much anger that, when he returned to the Camp Nou the following season, he had a pig's head thrown at him as he went to take a corner.

Laudrup, in contrast, is still a hero to both Cules and Madridistas - no mean feat when you consider that, in the summer of 1994, he committed football's most unthinkable act: he left Barcelona to join Real Madrid. Given the animosity between them, why?

"I was at Barcelona for five years," said Laudrup. "When I arrived in 1989, Barca were winning La Liga on average every seven or eight years. It's hard to imagine, but they were comfortably the number two team behind Real Madrid, who had won four titles in a row.

"At Barca, we finished third at first and then won La Liga four times in a row, the European Cup in 1992 and enjoyed the most successful period in their history. They even called us the Dream Team, but after five years I felt it was time for a change.

Barcelona fans burn a picture of Luis Figo
Barca fans burn a picture of Luis Figo upon his return in October 2000

"I'd tried everything and, under Johan Cruyff - the most important coach I ever played for - we won everything. I heard stories I'd fallen out with Cruyff, that other things happened, but none of it was true, none of it was behind my reason for leaving.

"There was another issue - the 1994 World Cup in USA. Barca had nine players in the Spanish squad plus Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario, all going to the US.

"I knew from experience that the season after can be difficult if you have a lot of players who have been to the World Cup, with injuries and so on. So I thought, this is the moment to leave.

"I didn't want to go back to Italy as I'd already played there for six years with Juventus and Lazio, I didn't want to go to Germany, France would have been a step down and none of the big teams in England made an offer.

"So I looked at Real Madrid. They had only a few players going to the World Cup, had a new manager in Jorge Valdano and everything was being readied in preparation for that 1994-95 season. Also, they were now the number two team and were desperate to be first again.

"In football terms, it was the only decision to make. But of course, it wasn't that simple..."

Laudrup knew he was making anything but a purely footballing decision and the 20,000-signature petition of Barca members begging him to stay did not make it easier.

Valdano told me on the way back to Madrid: 'Michael, tonight I realised how much they loved you'

Michael Laudrup

Since Lucien Muller left Real to join Barca in 1965, only one high-profile player had switched between the two; German schemer Schuster inducing a red-and-blue mist that still lingers at the Camp Nou by leaving for the Spanish capital in 1988.

But despite acknowledging the delicate nature of the decision, Laudrup's resolve was firm: on 1 July, 1994, one of the world's best players crossed the ultimate footballing divide and - to the horror of the Catalans who had worshipped him - donned the famous white shirt of Los Merengues.

"Of course I knew it wouldn't be received so well in Catalonia," said Laudrup, without a hint of sarcasm. "That was my major cause for doubt about the whole move and I thought about it a lot.

"I wasn't overly worried about how people would react, but I had five great years at Barca and when they came with the petition, of course that had an affect on me.

"But there were no death threats, it never got too nasty and I convinced myself I had to make the decision based only on football."

Laudrup's last meeting with Real Madrid in a Barca shirt had ended with a thumping 5-0 win for Cruyff's side and his first two meetings with his old employers were equally electric.

"I won 5-0 in the Camp Nou and then signed for Real," he said. "Can you imagine that they weren't too pleased to see me arrive, the Madridistas? There I was, this guy who had helped to stop their team winning anything for four years, suddenly playing for them.

Nothing compares to Barca v Real - Lineker

"But a year later, we beat Barca 5-0 in the Bernabeu. So in 12 months, in by far the most important fixture of the season, I had won 10-0!

"The second time we met in that first season, it was my first return to Barca as a Real player. Well, picture the scene: it's the third last game and if Real win, we are champions of Spain. Imagine them winning the title in the Camp Nou - it's a nightmare for every Catalan.

"It turned out to be a horrible experience for me. Nearly 100,000 people whistled every time I got the ball and it was the only time in my career when things outside football influenced me. I played very badly as a result.

"I knew a lot of people would be angry that I left, but I didn't realise it would be so bad that night. When you look back, it's logical - I was a hero, I crossed over to the other side and I went back.

"I will always remember the words of Valdano on the plane back to Madrid. He said: 'Well Michael, tonight I realised how much they loved you'. I was a little sad, of course, but I guess he was right."

Fifteen years on, most Barca fans have forgiven Laudrup for his betrayal, even though he did eventually win the title with Real in 1995, becoming the only man to win five La Liga titles in a row with two different clubs.

Should he decide to leave his home in Madrid to take in one of the world's greatest fixtures, there is no doubt he would be welcomed back with open arms in the city he once adorned.

"I went back to Barcelona for a testimonial game for the Dream Team in 1999, and it was absolutely fine," added Laudrup. "There will always be that 1% or 2% who will never forgive me, but today I can go back and the other 98-99% treat me very well.

"I'm Danish, after all. I'm not Catalan, I wasn't born in Madrid, I wasn't raised by either club and I didn't leave anyone on bad terms.

"It's not the same as if Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta went to Real Madrid, or if Iker Casillas joined Barca, nothing like the same, because those guys have been at those clubs since they were just kids.

"In Madrid, I will never forget how magnificently I was treated when I arrived, even coming from the all-conquering Barcelona team as I did. The people were incredible and it will stay with me forever.

"The most asked question I've had since I retired in 1998 is 'who do you like most, Barcelona or Real?' Now what sort of question is that?

"I don't care who wins. They are my two teams, both of them."

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see also
Superb Barca destroy rivals Real
02 May 09 |  Europe
Schuster leads the defectors
11 Dec 08 |  Football

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