When you think of Finland you think of one sport – Hockey. The National Hockey League in North America has been the stage for many Finns to dazzle the world with their ability on ice. When it comes to football however, very few have graced the pitches around Europe at a level remotely close to superstardom…but one man did…Jari Litmanen.
Born in the economic hub city of Lahti to footballing parents (both of whom played professionally), Litmanen began his youth career with hometown club Reipas at the age of six. After spending ten years in the youth ranks, he would make his full professional debut in 1987. Three years later (four seasons) he would move to HJK, Finland’s biggest club, where he scored sixteen goals in twenty-nine appearances. A year later he moved to MyPa but his footballing world was about to reach dizzying heights. In that same year (1992), Litmanen had garnered interest from Barcelona, Leeds United and PSV Eindhoven. But after failing to earn himself a contract with Romanian giants Dinamo Bucharest, he would eventually be snapped up by European elite – Ajax.
Earning the nickname “the professor”, given his knowledge of the game but also a constant willingness to learn and improve, it was during this first stint in Amsterdam that elevated him to the top. From 1992 to 1999, Litmanen would help Ajax capture thirteen trophies, including their famous win over AC Milan in the ’94-’95 Champions League final. In total he would wrack up 128 goals in 226 appearances in all competitions, a total that is astounding for an attacking midfielder.
His success in the Netherlands prompted a move to Barcelona that only lasted two seasons, with the second being missed entirely through injury. He then moved on to Liverpool for one season in ’01-’02 before returning to Ajax for his second stint at the club, this time for two years. It was now 2004, and Litmanen returned to Lahti before moving to Hansa Rostock, Malmö FF and Fulham where his career continues to be peppered with injuries. He once again returned to Lahti in 2008 and then again to HJK in 2011 before officially retiring from the sport. But in one final spell of brilliance, Litmanen would star in the last match of his career, assisting on three goals in HJK’s 5-2 win over FC Haka on the final day of the league campaign.
In 2009, former editor of FourFourTwo Paul Simpson was quoted in saying that his career had not been worthy of his talent – no truer words have been spoken about a player. Once considered of the premier attacking players in the world, Litmanen is now a father of two, and living quietly in his native Finland.
Since hanging up his boots, he’s been constantly linked with a return to Ajax in a coaching capacity as well as doing TV punditry for YLE, a Finnish television network. Whether or not he returns to the sport via the touchline, Jari Litmanen goes down for me as one of the most talented midfielders I’ve ever witnessed playing the game.
Career by the numbers
– Career club appearances (all competitions): 597
– Career club goals (all competitions): 227, including being the all-time top scorer in Europe for Ajax
– Career international appearances: 137 (first all-time)
– Career international goals: 32 (first all-time)
– Voted into the 100 greatest Finns in history
Remember to check back in each Friday as we induct another great into the Robin Friday Hipster Hall of Fame. Thank you to Hipster Drew @AFCBvB1410 for this contribution.