Jari Litmanen’s career is threatening to be a never-ending story. Last April the Finnish football legend signed a one-year deal with current Veikkausliiga champions HJK Helsinki, thereby ushering in his 24th season in the professional game. With the capital city club bossing Finland’s top flight in 2011, in much the same manner as 2010, Litmanen is well on the way to picking up what would be a 21st trophy of his lengthy career.
In 2010 HJK Helsinki proved their strength, bustling to the title and, with only Inter Turku and JJK Jyväskylä putting up any sort of fight this year, history looks likely to repeat itself. Indeed, both Inter Turku and JJK cannot boast half of HJK’s budget, meaning the Helsinki side’s domination could be set in stone.
In his homeland of Finland, Litmanen is accorded a status that no other sportsman who participates in a team sport has reached. As 2004 rolled around, the forward was included in the 100 Greatest Finns of all-time. Then, in 2010, Litmanen became the first Finnish footballer to have a statue erected in his honour – it is located at Kisapuisto (Lahti) where he took his first steps into the game in the 1970s, combining it with another sport, ice hockey (Finland’s national sport). A symbolic date was chosen for the unveiling of the €80,000 monument; 10-10-10 (10th October, 2010).
For Litmanen, being honoured has almost become a daily event. Recently the former Ajax schemer saw his face printed onto a new Samp Bank credit card that featured some of Finland’s most famous people. Images of Urho Kekkonen (the country’s longest serving president), Lasse Viren (a former Finnish long distance runner who picked up four gold medals at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics) and Uuno Turhapuro (a Finnish comedy character) all saw their faces receive pride of place with Litmanen. The player’s face will be elsewhere too, as Finnish director and producer Mika Kaurismaki is making a documentary about, in his own words, “the man behind the football god Jari Litmanen”.
Litmanen is one of the few players in the world to have played professionally in four different decades, the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Yet despite being 40 years old, the Finn has yet to write the last word on the book of his international career. Even with 137 caps for his country, the most recent coming against San Marino last December, 21 years and 26 days after his debut, time has not been called on the magic boots just yet. Litmanen also netted a penalty against the international minnows, breaking a record held by Irishman John Aldridge as the oldest goalscorer in a European Championship qualifying game; Aldridge was 39 years and 270 days old. It remains unclear whether and for how long Litmanen might continue to play for Finland. If he chooses to go on, then it will be an unwritten rule that Finland coach Mixu Paatelainen “must” pick him.
However, even a national idol cannot avoid his fair share of criticism and the Finn came under fire when announcing his controversial return to HJK after 20 years. Since Litmanen left Finland in 1992 to join Dutch giants Ajax (he was scouted by Ton Pronk during the Finnish Cup final he won with MyPA 47 against Jaro) the forward has returned to his country’s top flight twice, only to play with Lahti – a club founded in 1986 after a merger between Reipas Lahti, a team for which both Litmanen’s parents played and the man himself turned out for too from 1987 to 1990, and FC Kuusysi. Both sides enjoyed a strong rivalry with Helsinki’s HJK, the peak of the battles with Reipas taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, while Kuusysi chipped in from the early 1980s to mid-1990s.
The bad blood between the teams explains why Litmanen’s decision to sign for HJK was considered a betrayal by some sections of Lahti’s supporters. Litmanen had failed to help Lahti survive, with the club dropping out of last season’s Veikkausliiga and into the second tier, the Ykkonen. The forward still produced a number of memorable moments, including a breath-taking bicycle-kick away to FC Oulu; it was not enough though.
Last January Litmanen turned out for Lahti in the Uusi Lahti Cup – a five-a-side tournament – before joining HJK’s summer camp in Spain, where he demonstrated his fitness to earn a one-year deal. Living in the Estonian capital of Tallinn with his girlfriend Ly Jürgenson, Litmanen revealed that it would have been too hard to travel to Lahti every day to train and Helsinki is closer to his home. These words though were not enough to heal the wounds opened by his move. Last April a group of vandals damaged Litmanen’s statue by burning plastic and other flammable materials underneath it, lighting up the Lahti night.
Litmanen made his professional debut with Reipas on 3rd May, 1987 against Koparit, and is still weaving his magic nearly 25 years later. The forward’s stops have befitted his talent with a move to Ajax yielding a memorable Champions League and Intercontinental Cup. Spanish giants Barcelona, English powerhouses Liverpool, with a spell at another Premier League outfit, Fulham, have been complemented by time at Germany’s Hansa Rostock and Malmo in Sweden. Litmanen’s passion for football shows no sign of dimming and HJK Helsinki may not be the last stop in this supremely naturally talented player’s incredible journey.