Litmanen: Opponents said Ajax were on a different level

  • Jari Litmanen turns 50 today

  • He weighs in on the all-conquering Ajax team he played in

  • The World Cup and Finland's recent success are also discussed

“I pushed the limits of what was possible for a Finnish player,” Jari Litmanen told on the launch of his autobiography, Litmanen 10, in 2015. Five years on, it is safe to say that he remains unique in that regard.

The man they call 'Litti' – after Italy 1990 winner Pierre Littbarski – and ‘The Professor’ raised the bar high for his compatriots. In a 25-year career in which he ran out for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, namely Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool, the playmaker won a whole host of trophies and scored and set goals up in great number. In the process, he became a legend in his home country.

That status was cemented in 2010 when he became the first Finnish sportsperson to have a statue erected in their honour. To mark his 50th birthday today, Litmanen spoke to about his storied career and also discussed Finland’s qualification for UEFA EURO 2020. Who were your childhood heroes?

Jari Litmanen: I was a Liverpool fan, so my first hero was Kevin Keegan. When he left the Reds, Kenny Dalglish replaced him in my heart. Away from Liverpool, my role model was Diego Maradona. He was a source of inspiration for me in the 1980s.

What was your childhood dream?

Football was still an amateur game in Finland in the 1960s and '70s. My father played. He worked in a factory from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon, and then he went training and he played on Sundays. He got me into football, but I played ice hockey too until I was 14. It was then that I decided to focus on football. My dream was to play abroad for a big European club.

It must have been quite a thing for you to leave MyPa 47 for Ajax in 1992...

I’d had a few brief experiences with other European clubs before then, like PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona. Roy Hodgson also invited me to Neuchatel Xamax, the club he was coaching at the time, and I visited Malmo FF and IFK Goteborg’s facilities too. So it didn’t come as that big a surprise for me. I was ready to make the jump.

Just how good were Ajax then?

In a word, excellent. They were a young side and I remember being really impressed by the quality of their play. Ajax had just won the UEFA Cup. A lot of the people I played against said we were on a different level technically and tactically, and so many coaches told me we were their favourite team to watch.

You have an important place in the history of Finnish football and you even have a statue in your honour. Are you aware of the impact you’ve had in your country?

I am extremely honoured. It’s very gratifying to earn the respect of your compatriots. The statue is very special for me. They put it up in the city where it really all began for me.

Do you regret never having played at the FIFA World Cup™?

That was our ultimate goal, obviously. The thing is, we just weren’t good enough. I just accepted the idea that you can’t scale every peak. My Ajax team-mates played at the 1994 World Cup and reached the semis in 1998, where they were knocked out on penalties by Brazil. I took most of Ajax’s penalties, so I would have come in useful for the Netherlands.

You must have been delighted when Finland made history by qualifying for UEFA EURO 2020?

Absolutely! The team deserves it, simple as that. They played really well throughout the qualifiers and they were rewarded for it.

What’s so special about this Finland team?

They’re a close-knit unit, the players and the coaching staff, and that’s the key to their success I think.

Do you think that Finland are still lagging behind Europe’s big teams?

I think we’re still some way behind in terms of individual quality. Having said that, we showed against France recently that when we’re at our best, the opposition have to raise their game if they want to win.

You’re turning 50. Are you as happy now as you were when you were playing?

I haven’t announced my retirement yet! I’m still an active footballer, in my head at least (laughs). Obviously, things have changed in my life, especially when it comes to my family, because I’ve got two sons to bring up. My 50th year wasn’t the happiest because I got COVID-19 in March and I still haven’t fully recovered.

What do you miss the most about your former life?

The game itself is interesting. I liked training and preparing for games. I also enjoyed travelling to games and discovering new places, though most of the time you just see the hotel, the stadium and the airport.

Your nickname was ‘The Professor’ because you had a gift for analysing matches. A lot of people thought you were going to go into coaching. Why didn’t you?

I basically made that choice for my family. I played football seriously from when I was 15 to when I was 40, which is 25 years in all. That’s a lot. Coaching is interesting and it’s still an option, but it’s a job that involves making a lot of sacrifices. I’ve played at the top level too and it’s hard to envisage working at a lower level.

Who do you see as the best three players in the world right now?

It’s difficult to name just three but I’d say Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski. They can win matches on their own for their clubs and countries, and they’ve been doing it for years. It’s incredible what they’re capable of.

Is there a player out there at the moment that reminds you of you when you were playing?

That’s a question for other people to answer.