Friday

A Love Letter to Jari

By Alyson Rudd  |  13 Feb 2015

This article first appeared in Issue 6 of The Green Soccer Journal, March 2014

There have been two utterly breathtaking moments in my football viewing life. The first caused me to stop casually supporting Liverpool and become an obsessive fan. It happened when was I was very young and I still wonder if I had not wandered in from the garden to watch, half-halfheartedly, the 1974 FA Cup final would there have been another childhood Damascene moment?

I was drawn to a pair of spindly legs that sprinted with elegance and skipped over the challenges made by hairier, thicker, clumsier legs. It was Stevie Heighway on the wing, as the song now goes, and ping! That was all it took for me to become properly hooked on the beautiful game.

No one would ever come close to supplanting Heighway as my all-time favourite player. And yet…one run-of-the-mill trip to Villa Park 12 years ago caused me to fall in love all over again. I knew I admired Jari Litmanen and had been chuffed when he signed for Liverpool; who wouldn’t want such a classy player at their club? However, I had only seen him on TV. Nothing had prepared me for how I would react to a Litmanen masterclass in the flesh.

A refurbishment of the press seats meant I had to stand on a swaying gantry to watch Gerard Houllierʼs side demolish Aston Villa that day. Such was the manner of Liverpool’s victory that I forgot, briefly, why I was there. I jumped, somewhat unprofessionally, up and down and squealed and swore in astonishment. I was witnessing something ethereal, something magical, something almost frightening in its perfection. Litmanen did not make a single mistake. His every choice was the right choice. His every touch was deft, his every pass accurate.

ʻPah, so what?ʼ you might wonder, lots of players experience games when they can’t put a foot wrong. Ah, but Litmanen managed to make every other Liverpool player on the pitch that day a far better player than they had ever been. He wasn’t playing; he was orchestrating. Every pass was designed with the next pass in mind. He upped the tempo, then he calmed it. He would play a defence-splitting ball and then meander gracefully into position to receive the pass he knew would be the logical progression of the space he had just created.

Perhaps most gorgeous of all was that he did all this quietly, subtly. Liverpool were a collection of balls of wool and he was unraveling, knitting, crocheting it all so that an aesthetically glorious work of art would emerge. He was not flash, he was not selfish, he was like the admirable parent who goes without food so their children might eat.

Yes, yes, this is all rather gushing but I have watched a good deal of football and never, ever been slightly scared at how talented and visionary a player can be—except for this one time.

Michael Owen scored more goals per minute on a pitch with Litmanen than alongside any other player. It was patently obvious why; the Finn could demolish a defence with the shortest of passes. He could not set a striker on his way to goal better if he illuminated a path for him with flashing cones. He did not stay at Liverpool long enough. There were question marks about his work-rate—which of course missed the entire point—and his fitness and I heard that Litmanen would offer advice in training sessions. A manager could either think ‘oh lucky me, I have a genius to help the team mature’ or wonder if he was being undermined in some way. The latter sentiment prevailed it seems.

Of the tiny handful of players that Zlatan Ibrahimovic deems worthy of praise in his quite marvellous autobiography, it did not surprise me at all that Litmanen was among them. Of course he loved him. The Sweden international firstly, is of the belief that most players are selfish and would like to see him fail—and Litmanen is not like that, and secondly,

Litmanen’s ego would never brush up against that of his Ajax teammate. Litmanen enjoyed setting up Ibrahimovic and Ibrahimovic enjoyed tucking away the perfectly weighted and intelligent balls fed to him.

“Litmanen really was a team player,” writes the Swede. “He was the real deal.” And believe me, that counts as mighty complimentary in Zlatan’s world.  After that first Jari revelation I would drop everything if Finland were in a televised game. I forced friends and family to watch and learn. ‘But England are on the other side,’ they might wail—but in vain. Litmanen playing for his country was a sport all on its own as he cajoled, strolled, flitted, sashayed, probed, scored and generally lifted a team of average and below average internationals to reach moments of sublime elegance.

He ended up at Fulham, a club close to my London home, and I screamed at the press officers at Craven Cottage: “You’ve signed JARI LITMANEN.”

“We know that,” they said, amused, and promised that his first interview would be with me. But he left without playing for them amid confusion that he could be fit for his country but not his new club and I was left with just his mobile number. I summoned the courage to call one day. I was fearful of being tongue-tied in awe but he was perfectly pleasant and perfectly obstinate that he would give no one an interview about his career. “I don’t look back,” he said, vaguely perturbed that he was, apparently, speaking to his, officially, biggest fan in England.

It is a classy stance if a slightly annoying one and he has ‘unofficially’ retired now and keeps out of the spotlight to spend time with his family. Which is fine, and reasonable, given he is 42, but I want to know how he did it; did it feel magical and effortless or was it exhausting being a football god?

Alyson Rudd is an award-winning sports writer for The Times.
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