Thursday, February 07, 2013

Kuningas Litmanen Part II - Ajax

So the Litmanen story moves onto Amsterdam, and Ajax. Most of the interviews in this section, apart from those with Jari himself, are in English.

Ajax scout Ton Pronk was at the Suomen Cup final in 1992, and saw Jari. He describes the final as a "bad, bad, bad game" but he felt in his heart that Litmanen had the qualities that Ajax looks for, that he was the man. It was his preparations for the game that made him stand out initially, and he went off to Amsterdam... Where he was met by Ton, who took him straight to pre-season training, and this is where Louis van Gaal takes over.

Jari's first Ajax coach Louis van Gaal

Initially van Gaal wasn't impressed - Pronk had said he was at the right level, and had to convince van Gaal that Jari deserved to stay for the rest of the week, and Danny Blind describes how it was only a spate of injuries that meant Litmanen would get a fair go. It was only in small exercises that Jari first shone, the coach spoke glowingly about Litmanen's first touch, his ability to find space. He knew he'd make a perfect number 10, and fielded him in that position against an amateur side. Jari scored four goals.

Pronk smiles when van Gaal told him he was right after all...

Jari vs Portsmouth, Lahti 1993

Jari was happy to play as a number 10, but his expectations were managed, he was told he wouldn't play much because of Dennis Bergkamp. In a Finnish news clip, he was asked why he left MYPA, where he said it was for footballing reasons.

Litmanen arrives at Ajax's very modern looking training ground in February 2012, and meets some old friends. Coach Frank de Boer and director of football Marc Overmars both receive warm embraces, before journalist David Endt talks about Jari being seen as a rather unspectacular signing.

Captain Danny Blind remembers a young Jari

Danny Blind joins us, reminding that he and Frank Rijkaard were the elder statesmen of the team being in their early 30s, while the rest of the squad were in their late teens and early 20s. But he saw it their responsibility to help the younger foreign players settle in. Jari agrees, saying that he didn't feel like an outsider, and that as they all had one goal, it made life a lot easier.

Van Gaal eulogised that Litmanen's skill helped him settle, and that he was so open to learn from the coaches and players that it was only a matter of time. He had already started learning from Dennis Bergkamp, who was due to move to Spain in 1993.

Dennis himself speaks about the special position of 'shadow striker' that he had made his own. He knew Ajax were looking for other players to replace him, and initially Dan Petersen was the more likely candidate.

Jari's predecessor Dennis Bergkamp

Blind talks of van Gaal's early preference for Petersen, until the moment Jari got a run in the team. The coach himself had assumed that Litmanen was more of an attacking midfielder than a second forward, but his vision and awareness of space set him apart, plus he would defend more than Bergkamp...

Dennis left for Inter Milan in 1993, not Spain, and the captain described it as the beginning of a fantastic period for the club and for Jari. We see some clips of Jari lifting some trophies in his early days, the Dutch Super Cup in 1993 and 94, and the Eredivisie in 1994 as well.

 At the old Ajax stadium

We return to Jari walking around Ajax's then home, the Olympisch Stadion. He talks of his finest games being played in this ground, and his first great goal, a solo effort against PSV Eindhoven (below). Jari ended that season as top scorer with 26 goals, and was voted Footballer of the Year, an honour he prized.

Jari's first great goal for Ajax

He was happy with the style of football that Ajax played, just like Barcelona but not quite at the same level. It was a team of individuals, which emphasised his own skills of moving between the lines. Van Gaal was pleased that he had developed Jari more, that he was always open for the next pass. Litmanen reckons that Ajax (and the coach) improved him by 10-15%, as he feels like Finland had taught him the basics.

Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar remembered how keen Litmanen was to stay behind after training, with Marc Overmars and Edgar Davids, crossing and shooting at the keeper. His other former team-mates join in, Ronald de Boer was surprised by his determination, and Blind impressed with his focus and shooting techniques.

Not a bad couple of players

Overmars however gently mocked Litmanen's stretching techniques, using tubes to stretch with. Frank de Boer joins in, laughing at how Jari would even stretch in the bathroom for ages, but how he learnt the Dutch sense of humour. Van der Sar smiled when thinking of how he took it to the extreme.

An old interview with Rijkaard is shown from 1994, where he talks of Jari being their strongest player, and the main attraction. Van Gaal talks of the marvellous season, all the goals. Sami Hyypiä returns, and remembers when he played for Willem II, and how Litmanen destroyed them on the day they clinched the title - go too near him and he drops further back, or give him space and he'll play the killer pass.

Jari and Jari and Jari and Jari and Jari...

A chat with a rather eccentric Dutch man reveals how his pregnant girlfriend may call their child Jari, and then we find an interesting fact - since the mid-1990s, there had been 1587 boys born in Holland called Jari... The photo above shows the original with some of his namesakes. Even van der Sar's sister had a cat called Jari.

So to his greatest triumph, the 1994-95 European Cup. The first footage we see is from the group stage clash against the holders AC Milan. Jari and Rijkaard dominated, and we see Jari score from an Overmars cross, while van der Sar talked happily about wanting to swap shirts with their opponents.

Highlights of Ajax 2-0 Milan

Jari remembers winning both group games against Milan, both 2-0, and that he scored in both games. He scored a goal which was deemed strange by David Endt, by the way he narrowed the angle... But Jari used his early days as an ice hockey player, by committing the goalkeeper and putting it into the opposite corner.

The next real footage concentrates on Ajax's semi-final victory over Bayern Munich. The first leg in Bavaria finished 0-0, but the second leg was what Endt describes as one of Litmanen's finest. Ronald de Boer reckons that this Ajax team were the best in the world of that period, and this game would help that claim. After scoring the first goal, Jari was under a huge pile of players, and could only recognise himself from the boots.

But the real classy goal was to come, and it wasn't even scored by Jari (although he was involved). Overmars cut in from the right, rolled the ball along the edge of the box towards Litmanen. But he stepped over the ball, fooling the defender, while Finidi George strode forward and struck a beauty into the top right corner. Ajax went onto win the match, and the tie, 5-2, and reach the final where they'd face Milan again, in Vienna.

Highlights of Ajax 5-2 Bayern Munich

David Endt tells us that while Jari was ultimately happy to win the cup (come on, you all know how it ends), his biggest regret was that he couldn't put his stamp on the final. A temperature and some allergy problems meant he played below his usual standards, and was replaced by the match-winner Patrick Kluivert after seventy minutes, while Van Gaal said he knew it was a close game.

Highlights of the 1995 European Cup final

After the match, Jari sat proudly with the trophy while he was interviewed, and said it was the highlight of his football career. The three years had been a fantastic time, but that he believed that it wasn't the end.

With the Big Cup

We re-join Jari in 2012 as he looks at the jersey he wore in the final, along with the associated trinkets. It felt wonderful then, and looking back it was a highlight. If he had to choose one moment from his career, that would be it.

Jari's shirt from the 1995 final

The next scene is on the canals of Amsterdam, with seemingly the entire city celebrating the triumph. He admits it's nothing like anything in Finland, and the triumph crowned an unbelievable year. We see Jari presented with that year's Intercontinental Cup, won against Gremio in Japan in front of 47,000.

We see a clip of Litmanen receiving his silver medal in 1996. Despite scoring in the final, and in the penalty shootout, Juventus won the cup with big ears. Not a lot was said about this game... Although the general vibe was that it was a huge disappointment.

Runner-up in 1996

We meet some die-hard Ajax fans, with huge Litmanen jersey collections, including their efforts to get to Lahti in 2010 to get his latest Jersey. Even more people show off some tattoos of their hero... A Finn living in Amsterdam used him as her inspiration to recover from a serious illness, and she lived to tell the tale.

So the Ajax spell ends, and fast-forwards to 2011 and his return to Helsinki. The strange time line of the DVD means that I'll probably look to cover his time at Barcelona and Liverpool next. See you soon, in the meantime here is a clip of Jari Litmanen's top 10 Ajax goals.

Jari's top 10 Ajax goals

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