Jari Litmanen: The King

ajax finnish midfielder jari litmanen

Player Profile: Jari Litmanen

Date of Birth: 20/02/1971 

Height: 6 ft

Position: Attacking midfielder

National Team: Finland

International Caps: 137

International Goals: 32

Club Career

The legendary Jari Litmanen is best known for his time at Ajax and brief spell at Liverpool. With over 130 international appearances he’s widely considered as Finland’s greatest ever player and to be fair it’s hard to disagree. Born in Lahti, Litmanen joined local side Reipas at the age of six. He spent the next 10 years playing for the club’s academy before making his first-team debut in 1987 aged just 16. 

Litmanen made 86 league appearances across four seasons, during which he scored 28 goals from midfield. In his final season at the club, he averaged a goal every other game, so it was no surprise to see Finland’s big boys come calling. In 1991 he signed for HJK, and in his only season at the club, he again averaged a goal every other game. 

Aged 21, Litmanen joined MyPa for the 1992 season, which turned out to be a huge success. Despite falling short in the league, MyPa did win the Finnish Cup, beating FF Jaro 2-0 in the final. His outstanding performance, which included a goal, convinced an onlooking Ajax scout that the club should sign him. They wouldn’t regret it.

Before joining Ajax in the summer of 1992, there was plenty of interest in the attacking midfielder. Dinamo Bucharest, Barcelona, Leeds United and PSV were all reportedly interested in the youngster, but Amsterdam was his preferred destination.

Litmanen was forced to bide his time during his first season in Dutch football. Originally manager Louis van Gaal was unimpressed with the Finnish playmaker, but when an injury to Dennis Bergkamp left Ajax without a number ten Litmanen was given his chance. And boy did he take it. He scored 27 goals in 42 games in his first two seasons, finishing the 1993/94 campaign as the league’s top scorer. Ajax were crowned champions that season and Litmanen was named Footballer of The Year in Holland in 1993.

Over the course of the next two seasons, Litmanen was one of LvG’s star players. He’d been handed the famous number ten shirt following Bergkamp’s departure from the club and played a pivotal role in securing three consecutive league titles. Ajax also reached back to back Champions League finals. 

He was part of an Ajax side that was simply untouchable. From the start of the 1994/95 season to the middle of the 1995/96 season Ajax were unbeaten in both the league (52 games) and the Champions League (19 games), which included a final win over Milan in 95 making Litmanen the first Finn to win the European Cup/Champions League.

The following season Ajax reached the final once again, with Litmanen topping the Champions League goal scoring charts with nine goals. However, they were unable to defend their crown losing on penalties to Juventus. Litmanen’s outstanding form that year resulted in him finishing 3rd in the Ballon d’Or. 

Litmanen spent seven years at Ajax winning four league titles and three KNVB Cups. He scored 129 goals in all competitions, 26 of which came in the Champions League making him the club’s top scorer in European competition. Along with Marco van Basten and Johan Cruyff, Litmanen is considered a club legend. Fans often referred to him as ‘Merlin’ because of his wizardry with the ball. But his ongoing injury problems brought his stint at the club to an end in 1999.

Linking up once again with Louis van Gaal, Litmanen signed for Barcelona, but he was unable to shake off the injury woes that had restricted his playing time at Ajax. As a result, he made just 21 league appearances in two seasons at Camp Nou. During his second season at the club Van Gaal was replaced by Lorenzo Serra Ferrer and the Finland international was frozen out of the team by the new gaffer. In January 2001 Litmanen joined Liverpool on a free transfer.

Litmanen scored two goals in 11 appearances for Liverpool before breaking his wrist on international duty. The injury ruled him out for the rest of the season meaning he missed the FA Cup Final, League Cup Final and UEFA Cup Final, all of which the Reds won. 

The following season Litmanen was used sparingly by then manager Gérard Houllier. He scored seven goals in all competitions but was left frustrated with a lack of game time, particularly in the league. As a result, Litmanen persuaded the Liverpool hierarchy to let him leave the club on a free after the 2001/02 season. And there was only one place he was going, Ajax.

He received a hero’s welcome on his return to the club. Litmanen showed glimpses of his best as he played a vital role in helping the team reach the quarter-finals of the 2002/03 Champions League. Unfortunately, he missed the majority of the following season due to niggling injuries and in the spring of 2004, he was released by the club.

At the age of 33, Litmanen returned home to Finland for a brief spell with Lahti. He scored three goals in 11 league appearances before joining Bundesliga strugglers Hansa Rostock on a short-term deal. Despite his best efforts, he could do nothing to prevent the side from being relegated from Germany’s top flight. As a result, Litmanen was on the move once again.

In July 2005 he joined Swedish giants Malmö FF. After failing to help the club qualify for the Champions League Litmanen missed the majority of autumn with an ongoing injury. He stayed at the club in 2006 but was once again sidelined for an extended period of time. Litmanen made just ten league appearances in three season for the club. The games he did play though proved he still had it. He just couldn’t keep fit. 

In January 2008 Litmanen teamed up with former Finland manager Roy Hodgson at Fulham following a successful ten-day trial. However, serious heart concerns forced Litmanen to return to his homeland, where he was encouraged to rest. He returned to England later in the season but failed to make a single appearance for the Cottagers.

Litmanen would end his career back in his native Finland. Three years and 40 league appearances at Lahti were followed by a League and Cup double at HJK, during which he scored two goals in 22 appearances in all competitions. On 29th October 2011, Litmanen featured in HJK’s final game of the season, which was his 200th league appearance in the domestic competition. It also proved to be the last of his career.

International Career

With 137 international caps, Jari Litmanen is Finland’s most capped player ahead of the likes of Sami Hyypiä and Jonatan Johansson. His 32 goals for his country also make him the highest goal scorer of all-time.

Litmanen made his international debut against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 and went on to captain his country from 1996 to 2008. He became just the fourth Finn to achieve 100 international caps and in 2010 – following a game against South Korea – became the first player to represent his country in four different decades.

Later that year Litmanen scored against San Marino making him Finland’s oldest scorer and the oldest player to score in the qualifying stages of the European Championships. This proved to be his final international game.

Where is Jari Litmanen now?

Despite staying out of public eye for the most part since his retirement, Jari Litmanen occasionally writes about football for a national newspaper and appears as a television pundit for major tournaments. 

Did you know? Interesting facts about Jari Litmanen 

 In Finland he’s known as ‘Kuningas’ which translates to ‘The King’.

– Litmanen is sometimes referred to as the ‘Man of Glass’ due to the injury problems that plagued his career.

– He was named the best Finnish player of the last 50 years by the Finland FA.