Why I will always love Ajax great Jari Litmanen
By Babette van Haaren
Once in a while your thoughts go back in time. Back to your club’s historic moments. Back to the successes, back to the moments that will live on forever, back to the fantastic players your club had. So have I and every time I do there’s always one man coming to mind: Jari Olavi Litmanen.
Thinking about Ajax leads me to thinking about the great names: Johan Cruijff, Piet Keizer, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edwin van der Sar. All Dutch players. And yet before many of them, I think of Jari Litmanen. He of the goals, the assists, the threats, the brains and the lungs. Everyone knows who he is.
Born in the Land of Thousand Lakes, where ice hockey is the biggest sport, Jari was born on 20 February 1971. Torn between his two passions ice hockey and football, he chose the latter. And I’m forever grateful that he did. He first played for Reipas Lahti and moved to Mypa later. Trials at PSV, Leeds United and FC Barcelona among others followed before he knocked on Ajax’s door. Louis van Gaal signed the Finn for just one million Dutch guilders (450.000 euros). When Dennis Bergkamp left for Inter, van Gaal decided on Stefan Pettersson as Dennis’ successor. He did well but then got injured. One man’s misfortune was another’s gain as Litmanen took his place and never gave it back.
Ajax and Litmanen won the league title in 1994 and the Finn became the fans’ new hero. He was the topscorer that year with 26 goals. And the fans rediscovered the “Volare” chant and changed it to “Litmanen, oh ooh…Litmanen..ohohooooh”. He won the player of the year awards in both Finland and the Netherands.
The 94/95 season was the most successful one that Jari Litmanen experienced at Ajax and was undoubtedly his best season at the club. Ajax grabbed the title again and the Champions League. He was magnificent in the epic 5-2 semi-final second leg win over Bayern München, scoring two of the six goals he managed in Europe that season. Litmanen would become the Sportsman of the Year in Finland, the first time a football player won, instead of a ice hockey player. The end of that season would also mean Ajax sliding south. They won the Eredivisie title in ’96 and lost the Champions League title against Juventus but it was the end of an era. Top players like Davids, Reiziger, Kanu and Kluivert left. The De Boer brothers subsequently left as well. Jari didn’t, Jari stayed. “The atmosphere at Ajax is more important than the money in Italy”. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better life somewhere else than at Ajax, so I’m staying. I owe everything to Ajax, this is my way of letting them know”.
His strengths are analysed at length. He is cool in the box, nerves stay home when Jari plays. He would instinctively take up the right position and has all the skills and techniques for scoring. He can head a ball, chip, shoot hard, swerve the ball…you name it, he could do it. He is king of the assist, works hard for the team and can play in many positions. Litmanen had perfect ball control. Chest, head, thigh, feet – left or right – he could do it all. He possessed the most wonderful technique but only deployed in service of the team. No Richard Witschge like gallery play, but functional.
Jari also knew when to come and when to stay. Litmanen was a midfielder, but knew exactly when to pick his moment to join the striker (Kluivert, Kanu) in the box. Litmanen also had a Bergkamp – Jonk like rapport with Danny Blind. Both players knew exactly, without talking, when to start pressing or when to keep the ball in possession and when to force the game. Litmanen was the best no. 10 Ajax ever had. A perfect team player and a wonderful human being. Despite all the challenges on his feet, he never would retaliate and in his post-match interviews he always praised the team and thanked the fans.
In 1999 Jari Litmanen’s life at Ajax ended when he left the club for FC Barcelona after an emotional farewell. Unfortunately he would never be as good at the clubs that followed as he was at Ajax in the nineties. Injuries kept haunting him wherever he went, Barcelona never quite managed to pull off the trick of importing most of that great Ajax side and Liverpool had no idea how to get the best out of Litmanen but all these bad experiences did not stop him from playing into his forties for both club and country. He bowed out of international football in 2010 by scoring a penalty in his last international against San Marino and last played with HJK back in 2011. Time will tell if there is to be yet another chapter in a career that has spanned four decades. Not even Ryan Giggs can match that!
He is one of the greatest players that has every played for Ajax. The fans still love him to bits and he’ll live on forever in our memories.