This article was first published in the official UEFA Super Cup 2022 programme. Buy your copy here.
“My father was my hero when I was young – he won the Finnish Cup five times, so I had to win it at least once.” Sometimes following in your dad’s footsteps can be a daunting prospect, especially if he was a professional player and serial winner. What makes it doubly hard is if your mum was also a professional footballer. Fortunately for Jari Litmanen, among other titles, he managed to add a European Cup and a Super Cup to that one Finnish Cup title...
Growing up in Finland, European Cup glory was a mere pipe dream for Litmanen. “When I was young I dreamed about playing for the first team of Reipas, then playing for a big club somewhere to win trophies. I was a big fan of Liverpool; I remember watching Kevin Keegan, Phil Thompson and Kenny Dalglish win all those European titles.”
Before leaving Scandinavia, Litmanen would play for three Finnish teams – Reipas (for whom his mother and father also played), HJK and MyPa – and it was his performance for the last of that trio, in the Finnish Cup final, that was the clincher for a certain Dutch club. “I’d just won the 1992 Finnish Cup, alongside Sami Hyypiä, and I knew before the game that Ajax were scouting me. When it finished I received a call to go to Amsterdam for a three-day trial. On the second day Louis van Gaal told me I was going back to Finland and negotiations would start for my transfer. So at the start of the week I was at the cup final and the next thing I was an Ajax player. It was crazy!”
Litmanen would also go on to play for Barcelona and his boyhood favourites Liverpool, but it was at Ajax that he made his name. The third of Van Gaal’s signings, he was an integral part of the club’s run to the 1994/95 Champions League final, where the formidable AC Milan lay in wait. “We had a team with good players but we were really working for each other on the pitch. I have seen many good teams with great individual quality, but we had something special in that team.”
Boasting a squad containing the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars and a young Patrick Kluivert to name but a few, Ajax had already faced Milan twice in the group stage, overcoming the European titans twice ahead of the final. Despite those confidence-boosting wins, Litmanen insists that at no point did they underestimate their opposition. “We were confident, but we also knew that in a final, everything changes.