For followers of the Premier League, Jari Olavi Litmanen will be remembered for a spell spent mainly on the periphery at Liverpool at the start of the 2000s, during the reign of Gerard Houllier. Despite the Frenchman declaring the Finn as world class when signing him for the club Litmanen supported as a boy, he baffled supporters by often leaving a player described by many Ajax fans as their best number 10 ever – a list that includes the incomparable Dennis Bergkamp – on the sidelines. He was a man ahead of his time perhaps with his mercurial talents the kind we would be drooling over in the Premier League now, stuck instead in a rigid system at Liverpool, that was light years away from the talented team we see at Anfield today.
Litmanen was born the son of two footballers – both his mother and father having played the game to a high standard in Finland – in February 1971 in the south Finnish town of Lahti. The young Jari showed a talent for both football and the country’s national game, ice hockey, but at 14 he had to make a choice and the lushness of the turf won out over the harshness of the ice and saw him sign up with local side Reipas Lahti for whom he made his professional debut aged just 16. Finland’s biggest club HJK Helsinki soon came calling but after only a year there he was on the move again joining MyPa where he helped them secure the Finnish Cup before making the move that would ultimately turn him into a household name in the European game.
There had been interest from Leeds United and Barcelona before Ajax made their move, but it wasn’t plain sailing for the Finn. He initially went to Amsterdam on trial and at first their manager Louis Van Gaal was not convinced, and it took the persuasion of assistant coach Gerard Van der Lem for Litmanen to be given more time to settle. The player’s modesty was taken as being timorous by Van Gaal but after making his mark in the Amsterdam club’s reserve side he would ultimately replace Inter bound Dennis Bergkamp. Dan Peterson was the initial replacement for the future Arsenal man but an injury to the Dane gave Litmanen a chance, one he took wholeheartedly.
With the number 10 shirt firmly in his possession, the 1993/94 season saw him finish as top scorer in the league with 26 goals as Ajax picked up the Dutch title, Litmanen claiming the player of the year award in the Netherlands in 1993 along the way too. Ajax, in fact, won three league titles back-to-back as the club entered a golden period which saw them as a real force in the Champions League too with Litmanen very much at the centre of that. From the beginning of the 1994/95 season until the middle of the following one Ajax remained unbeaten in Europe’s premier competition beating Milan in the 1995 final, making Litmanen the first Finn to win the trophy. They made the final the following season too, missing out on penalties this time to Juventus. Litmanen was top scorer in the competition that season with 9 goals and his form saw him take third in the Ballon D’Or, behind winner George Weah and runner-up Jurgen Klinsmann.
In total the Finn spent seven years at Ajax scoring 129 goals in total including 26 in the Champions League, a record that still sees him as the club’s top scorer in the competition, winning four league titles and three KNVB cups along the way. He was revered by the fans who nicknamed him Merlin for the magic he brought to the pitch and his ability to drift through attempted tackles. His fellow professionals loved him too with Frank Rijkaard, a one-time team-mate of Bergkamp, rating the Finn above the Dutchman declaring Litmanen as the best number 10 the club ever had. For all the skill there was a downside to the Finn, one that contributed to the other ‘nickname’ he was given by some – ‘The Man of Glass’.
Litmanen was dogged by injury throughout his career, with one Liverpool fan when asked what influence the Finn had on the game stated that injuries probably stopped him from fulfilling his true potential. That fan believed that had Litmanen had stayed injury free more we would now be talking about him the same breath as the likes of Zidane. The problems first reared their head while he was still at Ajax and whilst there were no doubts he was a success there, it could have been even greater had he not missed 57 of the 204 league games during his time there through injury and nearly a third of the 24 Champions League games for the club in his last three seasons with them. Around that time The Observer newspaper commented that he was like the Pope of the time ‘making few appearances and looking frailer each time’. Despite his time spent in the physio room Van Gaal knew a good player when he saw one, so it was no surprise when Litmanen was one of several Ajax players to follow their former boss to Barcelona, the Finn joining the Catalan club in 1999.
It’s fair to say it was a move that didn’t work out; Litmanen made just 21 appearances in his two years at the Camp Nou. Injuries played their part, as had become the norm with him, but a failure to settle didn’t help either. Van Gaal didn’t exactly show him any love either, hanging him out to dry with comments such as ‘you have to adapt when you move to a different club, and not every player is able to do that’ and ‘I set more store by a players’ character than by his on-field qualifications’. Things got no better once Van Gaal left with his successor freezing out the Finn in favour of Rivaldo, and so it was onto Liverpool.
As previously stated, he fared little better on Merseyside, at the club he declared to have been his boyhood team, his number 37 shirt he had during his time there the closest one he could get to his hero Kenny Dalglish’s number 7 shirt. Despite ringing praise from the Scot’s former strike partner, Ian Rush, on his arrival and heavily influencing a young Wayne Rooney, it was a similar tale to the one at Barca with Houllier seeming to prefer the brute force of Emile Heskey than the finesse of Litmanen.
His departure from Anfield saw a return to Amsterdam where he was given a hero’s welcome by his adoring Ajax fans, but injuries struck again. He played just 20 times in two years before his career would go full circle as he landed back not just in his home country but at his home-town club too. He helped Lahti qualify for Europe for the first time ever before finally calling it a day back at HJK Helsinki winning the league and cup double with them in 2011, his last ever season as a professional footballer, at the age of 40 becoming one of the few players to have played across four decades having made his debut in the 1980s.
Litmanen is arguably the greatest player Finland have ever produced but despite being their most capped player, their record scorer, a man who became the first non-ice-hockey player to win Finland’s ‘Sporter of the Year’, one who has a statue in his honour in his home town and ultimately left a huge impression on his country, there is an element to his story that leaves you underwhelmed. It is as ‘FourFourTwo’ writer Paul Simpson aptly put it – he was ‘A lionheart made of glass whose career was not worthy of his talent’.