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Jari Litmanen: The King of Finnish Football

Jari Litmanen: The King of Finnish Football

Finland made its first major international tournament appearance in its history in the Euro 2020. The Finns started with a brilliant 1-0 victory over Denmark but succumbed to two back-to-back defeats against Russia and Belgium. Even though they couldn’t get past the group stages, it was still a great achievement for the Scandinavian nation to reach the European Championship finals.

The Finland Euro 2020 team is undoubtedly the best in the country’s history to date. Teemu Pukki and the gang made history representing Finland in a tournament of such grandeur. But, it’s also undeniable that this team didn’t have the best Finnish footballer in history. That honour goes to none other than Jari Litmanen.

Jari Litmanen playing for Reipas Lahti in his teenage days (Helsingin Sanomat)

So, you can label Jari Litmanen as some sort of a nonconformist for setting his sights on becoming a footballer. Of course, football was ingrained in his genetics since both of his parents were professional footballers. Olavi Litmanen, Jari’s father, played for Reipas Lahti and represented the Finnish national team. Alice Litmanen, his mother, also played for the Reipas Lahti female team.

Despite having a strong family connection to football, the allure of becoming a winter Olympian is hard to resist for any Finnish youngster. But, Jari Litmanen was determined to following his parents’ footsteps. Therefore, in 1987, he became the latest generation of Litmanens to wear the colours of Reipas Lahti. He was only 16 at the time.

After spending three years at Lahti, he moved to Finnish giants HJK Helsinki in 1990. By the end of his Lahti spell, Litmanen showed signs of becoming an elite forward. In HJK, his evolution became complete. He found the net 16 times in 27 appearances in his first and only season at Helsinki. Litmanen joined Kouvola outfit MyPa, where he carried on his blistering form.

Litmanen won his first silverware in Finnish football at MyPa when he led the club to a Finnish Cup triumph. He scored a brilliant goal as MyPa beat FF Jaro 2-0 in the final at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Ajax scout Ton Pronk was in attendance that day, and he was pretty impressed watching Litmanen coasting across the field.

Back in those days, scouting a foreign talent was no walk in the park. There was no abundance of data and video feeds to look into. Thanks to the information you can find online these days, you can do more scouting work at your home than an actual scout in the ‘90s or earlier. It was possible to get convinced by a single outstanding performance and miss out on many crucial underlying factors.

So, signing a young talent from a foreign league was more like a roll of the dice. The rewards could be enormous, but so could be the losses. After a subpar first season at Ajax, many ruled out Litmanen as a failed bet. The 22-year-old got most of his minutes for the reserve squad and saw Dennis Bergkamp occupying his preferred number 10 role in the senior team.

Litmanen failed to make an impression on then Ajax manager Louis van Gaal. There was a growing consensus that the splendor of the Dutch powerhouse was too overwhelming for a kid from Lahti. But, the club’s physiotherapist convinced Van Gaal that Litmanen could fill the void left by Bergkamp, who was about to join Internazionale.

Filling the shoes of someone of Bergkamp’s stature was a huge ask for Litmanen, but he lived up to the challenge and surprised everyone. He finished the 1993/94 season with 26 goals to his name. Litmanen was central to Ajax’s Eredivisie and Champions League charge.  He was deservingly named the Footballer of the Year in the Netherlands that season for his incredible achievements.

In his seven-year stay at the Dutch capital, Litmanen won the league three times and played two back to back Champions League finals, winning one and losing one. Despite recurrent injuries, his performance levels didn’t dip below expectations till his last season at the club. Litmanen and Van Gaal formed a successful partnership, so the latter was keen on continuing that relationship even after leaving Ajax.

Jari Litmanen was incredibly successful at Ajax (One Football)

Towards the end of his Ajax career, it was evident that Litmanen was far from his best. Chronic injuries took such a heavy toll on his body that he wasn’t capable of putting in high-tempo shifts regularly. Van Gaal, however, failed to see the writing on the wall and took him along to Barcelona.

But, the playmaker failed to hit the heights of his glory Ajax days. He became an outcast at Barcelona after Van Gaal’s dismissal. He joined Liverpool on a free transfer, but he failed to build a lasting legacy at Anfield apart from some occasional splashes of brilliance. He briefly returned to Ajax in 2003 and seemed to have rediscovered his magic for a while. But, injuries would return to haunt him again.

It’s peculiar that for a player whose career has been so severely ravaged by injuries, Litmanen had quite a lengthy career. He retired after his 40th birthday, and earned no less than 137 caps for his country; no other player played more matches for Huuhkajat . He scored 32 goals for Finland, which is also a record.

Copa Football's Litmanen Tribute Kit (Football Shirt Culture)

To celebrate the 50th birthday of the legendary Finnish footballer, Copa Football has released a special Litmanen shirt. The shirt is fundamentally white with indigo accents. The crest on the right chest has a Litmanen illustration while the Copa logo graces the other chest. The sleeves feature the national flag of Finland.

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  • Lewis Davison
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