FIFA Ballon d'Or

Litmanen: Longevity fueled by passion

Longevity and effectiveness. These two words are not enough to do justice to the remarkable career of Finland's Jari Litmanen. Spanning almost 25 years, from 1987 to 2011, it included stints at nine different clubs, including notably Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool. It was paved with silverware, ranging from the 1994/95 UEFA Champions League to the 2000/01 UEFA Cup and five Dutch league titles.

Goals were another regular feature, including 32 in 137 appearances for his country, a statistic that makes him both the most capped player and the highest scorer in Finnish national team history. And, above all, it was dominated by one thing: passion.

As the man nicknamed Litti put it: "Notwithstanding all the injuries and the obstacles that arose in my path, the only thing that ever drove me to run on a pitch was the love I have for football." So great is this passion that he recently decided to write a book about it (Litmanen 10, published by Tammi Publishers), one which recounts his memories from his playing days. The Finnish legend took the time out to share some of these reminiscences with "Litmanen is the most unlucky fellow I have come across in football," Roy Hodgson once said. Looking back, do you feel you were as unfortunate as your former coach at Fulham stated?
Jari Litmanen:
No. I was lucky in many respects over the course of my career, starting with the break Ajax gave me in 1992. That club offered me the chance to kick-start my career as a footballer. For the young player I was, getting to try my luck overseas at a club like that, working alongside a great coach and talented team-mates, was an invaluable opportunity. But it's true that my career was somewhat blighted by injuries. Some came at the worst possible time, while others were really out of the ordinary, like the injury in 2008 that prompted those words from the coach [at the end of a training session, Litmanen's head bore the brunt when team-mate Ricardo Batista smashed the ball in his direction from three metres away, and the attacking midfielder ended up sidelined].

It's true that you weren't spared by physical mishaps, but that didn't stop you from collecting trophies. Of which title do you feel the proudest?
I reckon that the title that means the most to me remains the 1994/95 Champions League, with Ajax. Only a small number of players get to win it during their career. At that time, it was something unthinkable for a Finnish player to achieve. But I was one of three 'foreigners' in that team, together with Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George, to have the honour of being crowned a European champion.

Do you regret anything at all from your career?
Of course you always say that you could've done better, but I really think I pushed the limits of what was possible as a Finnish player.

Everyone knows how attached you are to your homeland, but didn't the fact that you were unable to compete at the highest level on the international stage with your country leave you feeling like you missed out?
To an extent I was able to make up for that at club level, where I played with some of the best players in the world. What's more, I always felt great pride in wearing my country's colours and always strove to give everything to lead them as high as possible. It just wasn't enough. Many of my team-mates took part in European Championships and World Cups; I consoled myself as best I could, by telling myself that at least I had a holiday.

Do you think it's more difficult for players hailing from 'small' footballing countries to win the FIFA Ballon d'Or?
It's tough but not impossible. It's an award that recognises a player's inherent qualities and their ability to drag the teams they play for to the greatest heights. George Best was from Northern Ireland and was a worthy winner [in 1968]. And I had a front-row seat to see George Weah win it in 1995…

You finished third in the Ballon d'Or running that year. What does that 'bronze medal' mean to you?
Finishing third was a huge honour for me, as well as a big surprise. I never for a second imagined it. Football for me is all about the team effort. I considered myself as nothing more than a link in the Ajax chain. And I was Finnish, which I viewed as an additional obstacle.

Speaking of the Ballon d'Or, do you have a prediction for the 2015 edition?
It's always difficult to compare players. There are too many factors that come into play: the league they play in, the club they play for, their statistics, trophies, and so on. One thing for sure, though, is that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have been among the finalists for numerous years, are two players unlike the rest.

Being able to score in a UEFA EURO qualifier at the age of 39 is no mean feat either. What is the secret of your longevity?
Passion. Notwithstanding all the injuries and the obstacles that arose in my path, the only thing that ever drove me to run on a pitch was the love I have for football.

In your opinion, why are there fewer and fewer players of your ilk, old-school No10s?
I actually believe that the tradition lives on. It's true that today's No10s don't play the same way as in the past, but the likes of Lionel Messi and Mesut Ozil show that the main attributes of a [traditional] No10 are still alive and kicking.

You have never coached before. Is it something that appeals to you?
I've taken my badges. We'll see what the future has in store for me.

As for the present, there is the book you have just written, titled Litmanen 10. What does it mean to you?
It means a lot… it's the sum of a career that lasted almost 25 years! This book is a sort of footballing testament, in which I give my take on my career. I wrote it because my memories are still fresh and I had a bit of time of my hands, so I was able to set about doing it.

You are a legend in Finland. Is there scope for a new Jari Litmanen there?
There's a lot of talent in Finland, but so many factors come into play in order to succeed in your sport. Plus, Finland is only a little over 300,000 km2 in size, so it's still a 'small country'.

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