Jari Litmanen is not only seen as a great of Finnish football, he is seen as the greatest. The striker throughout his career has been blessed with an incredible natural talent which has never relied on pace. His tactical brain, football intelligence, speed of thought, anticipation and all round passing ability have been praised by Finnish football commentators for over two decades and it has made a revered figure in his homeland.
Litmanen spent five years at the start of his career honing his natural skills in his native Finland, playing in the late 80s and early 90s for Finnish premier division sides Reipas, HJK Helsinki and Mypa. He was never a prolific goalscorer but as a creative force he was second to none, playing as a second striker in the hole behind the forward line, he would string together attacking moves which would more often than not end up as goals.
A move to a larger European club was not long in coming, and in 1992, Litmanen was transferred to Ajax Amsterdam where he would have the most productive time of his career. After replacing Dennis Bergkamp in the side during his second season at the club, Litmanen began to score goals by the hatful and became Ajax’s top goalscorer during the 1993/94 seaon. Now, the complete all round player, Litmanen both created and scored goals for the Dutch club and assisted the Amsterdam team in its European successes under coach Louis van Gaal. He became a European Champion when Ajax beat Milan in the Champions League final in 1995, nominated as third best player in Europe in the process, and followed that up by helping them to another final 12 months later where they lost out to Juventus on penalties.
Litmanen was part of an incredibly young, vibrant team at Ajax which had stars such as Patrick Kluivert, the De Boer brothers, Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and many others. His time came to an end at Ajax after 7 years in 1999, scoring 91 goals in 159 league games for the Dutch club, and he moved on a Bosman free transfer to Barcelona where he joined up with his old coach van Gaal. He stay in Catalonia was brief though, as injuries plagued his stay and van Gaal was replaced as manager which limited his first team opportunities further.
The Finnish striker had always been an avid Liverpool supporter, and when the opportunity came in 2001 to join the Reds under manager Gerard Houllier, he jumped at the chance. Despite his fleeting appearances for the Merseyside club, Litmanen became a firm fan favourite as he demonstrated his brilliance with the ball at his feet. His lack of pace did not show in the Premier league as his football intelligence and creative ability came to the fore. Strangely for some Reds fans, he was constantly used from the bench, rather than starting games. Twice he scored in two games in a row and was left on the bench for the next game. He scored the winning goals against Tottenham and Dynamo Kiev in September 2001, but was a substitute against Newcastle in the following game. It again happened when he scored against Arsenal and Aston Villa in December 2001 but was left on the bench for the next match against West Ham.
It seemed that Gerard Houllier never really fancied the player despite his clear natural abilities, and although he had his injury problems, he did contribute to the treble winning season in 2001 when Liverpool won the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup.
After spending just a brief period with the Reds, Litmanen left for pastures new. So what has happened to the Finnish legend since he left Anfield? Amazingly at the age of 38, he is still playing as an attacking midfielder for his country and he broke the appearances record for Finland when he surpassed Ari Hjelm’s record by playing his 101st international against Belarus on 1st of March 2006. Now vice-captain of Finland, he has continued playing as a creative midfielder, assisting frontman Mikael Forssell in his exploits up front. As recently as March of this year against Wales, he put in a performance that belied his years by helping Finland to a 2-0 win at the Millennium stadium by providing the assist for the first goal scored by Jonatan Johansson.
At club level, his career has gradually wound down since he left Anfield. It seems that during his 30s, he is saving himself for international duty rather than shortening his career by being too active at domestic level. After Liverpool, he returned to Ajax in 2002 but his second spell was less successful at the club he had enjoyed his best years with previously. He played a sizable role in getting Ajax to the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2003 but was once again sidelined with injuries. He then returned to his native Finland where he played for Lahti briefly before going on short excursions to play for Hansa Rostock, Malmo and a curious spell at Fulham where he was brought in to help save the London club from relegation. Roy Hodgson, who had formally been the manager of Finland, recruited the Finnish veteran along with Tony Kallio in Januray 2008 but Litmanen never played a first team match for the Londoners.
Litmanen has since returned to Lahti, whom he continues to play for up to this day. At 38 years of age there maybe only a brief time left for him in professional football but it is testament to the player and his abilities that he still plays well for both club and country. He will always be remembered as ‘Kuningas’ or “The King” in his home country and will also be remembered fondly by all followers of European football.