Jari Litmanen, Ajax's Finnish maestroJari Litmanen is a very atypical case in the world of football. Not only is he a part of a country that is not known for producing a lot of top class talent, Finland, but he is also one of those weird cases where he accomplished a lot in the game and you still feel that he could have done a lot more, considering his talent.
In that regard, the Finnish midfielder's time at Ajax is rightfully viewed as the best years of his career, but when you consider all the great clubs he played for, the talent he showed throughout his career and the opportunities he was handed, you would he could have been an even greater footballer. Regardless, that is one of those big challenges in football: to stay brilliantly consistent throughout your career.
Jari Litmanen - here playing in a football veterans match
This is the career of Finnish maestro Jari Litmanen, one of Ajax's best ever players and the best footballer that his country ever produced. So let's begin.
The beginningBorn in Lahti, Finland, in February of 1971, Jari Olavi Litmanen showed a lot of promise in football from an early age (despite showing a lot of passion for hockey as well) and made his professional debut in the Finnish football league in 1987, at the tender age of 16 years old, for the club of his hometown, Reipas Lahti. He would spend four seasons there, gaining notoriety as one of the league's top players, and he would eventually sign in 1991 for the biggest club in the country, Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, commonly known as HJK.
Interestingly enough, Litmanen didn't spend a lot of time in HJK despite the fact he had a tremendous output for a midfielder the year he was there (16 goals in 29 games across all competitions). He was signed for MyPa in 1992, who he he would win the Finnish Cup with.
His performance there was noticed by one of Ajax's agents and he was immediately signed by the Dutch giants, thus kick starting Litmanen's Cinderella-like story across the European aristocracy of football.
Glory at AjaxIt would be very obvious to say that Litmanen hit the ground running at the Eredivisie, but it was far from it. While manager Louis van Gaal was giving a lot of opportunities to young players after winning the UEFA Cup the previous season, which gave him more power at the club, the Finnish midfielder was struggling for minutes and spent most of that year in the reserves.
After Dennis Bergkamp left for Inter Milan the following summer, it was when van Gaal, recommended by the people that kept track of Jari's performances at the reserves, decided to bet for Litmanen. A lot of people at the time mentioned that the former Veikkausliiga star was calm and introverted, but always eager to learn about football and tactics, helping him a lot to develop.
van Gaal would get the most out of Litmanen and his first stint at Ajax, which ranged from 1992 to 1999, is widely regarded as the player's peak. It was also during this time period that the manager built a squad that dominated the Eredivisie and even managed to reach the UEFA Champions League final twice in a row, winning the first one in 1995 and losing the next one in 1996.
Litmanen was the creative force behind van Gaal's team, adding vision, technique and high football IQ to a squad that was boasting the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert and many more. It was a super team of top class young talent and they probably became the last true great Eredivisie team, as of this writing.
He would end up winning every possible trophy at Ajax, and while the squad started to fall apart due to the Bosman Ruling in the mid-90s, he didn't leave. Jari was wanted in Serie A during the league's peak years, but he didn't fancy the defensive approach that most teams there.
Spain, England and returning homeLitmanen signed for Barcelona in 1999, who were coached by Louis van Gaal, but injuries and an unstable period for the club harmed his prospects there. Also, he never truly endeared to the Barcelona faithful, which resulted in him not getting a lot of sympathy from them. Frank De Boer, a former teammate of his at Ajax and now at Barcelona, called him "the glass man" due to his constant injuries.
After van Gaal was sacked, he signed for Liverpool as a free agent in January of 2001. Even though he was a childhood supporter of the club and won an UEFA Cup, a League Cup and an FA Cup in the six months he was there, the reality is that he couldn't do much due to his injuries. He stayed another year and played more often, showing glimpses of his magic, but even Liverpool fans have admitted that it was a disappointment not having Jari at his full potential.
He went back to Ajax in the summer of 2002, heralded as a hero (and rightfully so), now playing the role of a mentor in the two seasons he was there. Litmanen helped guide a talented crop of young players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Maxwell and Wesley Sneijder, but it is true that he was a fading force at this point.
Afterwards, he would go back to Finland and play for several clubs while having brief stints in clubs such as England's Fulham, Germany's Hansa Rostock and Sweden's Malmö, often struggling for playing time due to his injuries. He ended up retiring in HJK Helsinki at the age of 40 years old.
Jari Litmanen might be one of the most underrated players of his generation due to the fact that injuries took a huge toll on him and was never able to fully demonstrate his talent at Barcelona and Liverpool. Regardless, the talent, skill and magic he displayed at the Amsterdam Arena is never going to be forgotten.