Sunday, February 1, 2004

Jari Litmanen, February 2004

During Ajax USA's 'Rendezvous in Amsterdam' in February, our editor, Menno Pot, hooked up with Jari Litmanen in the press room of the Amsterdam ArenA. Ajax USA proudly presents you an exclusive interview with the Finn, who will always, ALWAYS be a an Ajax hero...

- Interview by Menno Pot

He walks into the room, shakes my hand and introduces himself simply as Jari. He actually asks the first question, too: "I can only talk to you for about fifteen minutes. Sorry about that. I am expected in the city at three o'clock. Ankle treatment. Is that a problem?" Not at all, I tell him.

This simple question, in many ways, typifies the man who is arguably the most popular non-Dutchman to have ever played for Ajax. Jari. Jari Litmanen. Our Jari.

"Is that a problem?" He really said it.

Typical Jari. Every other football player would have simply turned all interview requests for the afternoon down if he had an appointment at three. No other Ajax player would have apologized for only having fifteen minutes' time. Sadly enough, however, it is also typical for Jari that his agenda for the day is determined by ankle and hamstring treatment these days. Recovering from injury has become his fulltime job. His daily routine. His second nature, almost.

Jari Litmanen in the press conference room of the Amsterdam ArenA. [Photo: Ajax USA]

It's almost nine years ago now that Jari Litmanen won the Champions League with Ajax. May 1995. It's fifteen months ago that he surprisingly returned to the Amsterdam ArenA and three months ago that he last saw action in the first team. He had only six Eredivisie appearances so far this season, playing 152 minutes in total. That's exactly one full game and 62 minutes. In three Champions League appearances he played 88 minutes in total. Not much, either. He didn't score a single goal in any competition. To say that these figures are disappointing is an understatement.

Don't these injuries ever drive him mad? "No", he says. He notices the incredulous look on my face and explains: "In the past I used to aim for a certain date, or a certain game. I would tell myself: that's when I want to be back. Now I no longer do that. So, in a way, I simply don't allow these injuries to drive me mad. I just do what I have to do, in order to recover. I try not to think about it. I have no other choice."

The conclusion that Litmanen's return to Ajax has not become what the club, the supporters and Litmanen himself were hoping for, is as painful as it is inevitable. Of course: he had a great game in the Champions League, at home against AS Roma. He scored a stunning goal to make it 2-0. His best game was probably last season's away game at Feyenoord, in which we saw the 'real' Jari Litmanen. Then, too, he made it 2-0 to Ajax.

An all-too-rare sight this season: Jari Litmanen
playing for Ajax 1. [Photo: Gerard van Hees/]

My personal favourite 'Jari moment' since his return, however, occurred in Roosendaal on 21 September 2002. Jari was on the bench, half injured, as Ajax was unable to score in the away game at RBC. He was brought on by Koeman in the 55th minute and he had only touched the ball once when he found the opening in the RBC defence with a brilliant little thru-pass. Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring. Six minutes later, Jari left the pitch again. He played for exactly nine minutes, just long enough to win the game for Ajax. "Yes, that was nice," he says, "and it must have been kind of funny. But then, too, I would rather have played ninety minutes than just nine."

Let's not forget, by the way, that injuries weren't the only reason why we haven't seen much of him. "There was a two month stretch this season when I was totally fit," he says, "but then the coach didn't choose for me. That was his decision."

The situation was very similar when he played for Liverpool, his favourite club when he was a boy. There were posters of the 'Reds' and Ajax's Marco van Basten on the walls of his bedroom. But in Liverpool, too, he was injured too frequently. And when he was fit the manager didn't always play him. Was Liverpool a disappointment? "No," he says firmly. "Absolutely not. It was great to play there. Great club. Great people. Fantastic supporters. We won stuff while I was there, but all in all I just wasn't there long enough to really start feeling at home. Home is here. At Ajax. I've had my best years here. When I moved back, it really felt like I was going home."

When asked for the key difference between Liverpool and Ajax he doesn't have to think long: "At Liverpool the supporters are always behind the team. As long as you give everything they will support you. Ajax fans are more demanding. The level of expectation is enormous over here. Working hard is not enough. The supporters expect us to win and to look really good, too. If that's not the case there will be criticism. What both clubs have in common, however, is their sense of tradition and the warmth from the people working for the club. Ajax has changed while I played for Barcelona and Liverpool, simply because there are a new management, a new technical staff and many new players now. But the feeling is still very much the same. Almost everyone who works here has a true Ajax heart and an Ajax history. The atmosphere within the club is really positive."

Litmanen, in conversation with Ajax USA's Menno Pot. [Photo: Ajax USA]

In spite of that, difficult decisions need to be taken sometimes. Litmanen's contract expires at season's end and according to the Dutch press Litmanen will not be offered a new one. He was almost fit in early March, but then bruised his ankle in training. Another injury, which will keep him sidelined for an estimated six weeks. It seems unlikely that he will ever score his 100th goal for Ajax. He currently stands at 96. Contracts? The possibility of calling it quits as a footballer? Litmanen doesn't want to talk about it: "I'd rather not. I will be talking to the club soon and I don't know what will happen. When I'm fit I still have something to add to this team, is my firm conviction. But it's up to the coaching staff."

But first: some more recovering. If only he could be fit and actually play for Ajax-1. "I live by the day," he says, "tomorrow is always a new day." He smiles and shrugs his shoulders. One of the fascinating things about Jari Litmanen, the dark-haired Finn with the slightly melancholic eyes, is his aura of mystery. You never know what he really thinks or expects. Is he already saying goodbye in his mind? Or is he still fighting to come back? "The latter, of course," he says. I thank him for his time and wish him the best.

And off he goes. Ready for yet more ankle and hamstring treatment. (MP)

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