Litmanen facing new challenges in Germany
Finnish midfield star gathers a large crowd of journalists on his arrival at struggling Hansa Rostock
By Heikki Miettinen in Rostock
Footballer Jari Litmanen may be in the evening of his playing career, but he continues to enjoy the treatment and popularity accorded an international star.
More than 50 journalists and photographers have crowded into the press-room at the Ostseestadion home of Bundesliga side Hansa Rostock to hear Litmanen's comments on the latest new direction in his long career.
A cheery Litmanen looks relaxed in his grey suit as he deals with the compulsory barrage of questions. A few minutes later, he is out on the turf, doing tricks with the ball to delight the photographers.
The 33-year-old has played this role before, though the stage on this occasion is a little unfamiliar.
He went to Ajax Amsterdam as a youngster in the autumn of 1992, but later moves to Barcelona and Liverpool have trained him in this traditional ritual of the international game. Questions, answers, holding up and putting on the new team shirt, photo-ops juggling a ball as the flashlights go off...
Jari Litmanen knows how to carry off this side of his work. He has a quote for everyone.
Rostock is nonetheless a slightly different station on Litmanen's long footballing journey. Harbours and the proximity of the sea are the only common factors bringing Rostock together with the likes of Liverpool, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.
"I've always been playing in the sort of teams that were scrapping for cups and European honours. This is a new challenge", says Litmanen, and nobody is any doubt about what he means.
His new club Hansa Rostock have a clear and present problem. The club are propping up the Bundesliga table and are threatened with relegation.
The port city of Rostock (pop. c. 200,000) is in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, and this was East Germany until reunification. For all that, there is nothing in the charming centre of this Hanseatic League town to bring to mind the monotonous concrete tenement horrors of recent decades in the GDR.
It is easy enough to conjure up in the mind's eye a warm summer's day and attractive outdoor bars and cafés occupying the edges of the central square, but even with the most vivid imagination there is no way that Rostock's Kröpeliner Strasse pedestrian precinct could be confused with the La Rambla boulevard in Barcelona.
Barcelona's Camp Nou, Liverpool's Anfield, and the Amsterdam Arena are pilgrimage shrines for the footballing faithful, complete with big outlets for fan gear and merchandise. Hansa Rostock's Ostseestadion is stylish, holds around 30,000, and has been recently rebuilt on the site of the original stadium (from 1954), but it is no great sporting Mecca.
Litmanen does not trouble his head one bit with these external details. The game of football is drilled deep into his being, and on the pitch the challenges he faces are probably greater than ever before.
During Litmanen's watch in the 1990s, Ajax would often wrap up the Dutch League title long before season's end. Now Hansa Rostock are playing for their survival in the Bundesliga, and it is likely to go right down to the wire.
"I still enjoy playing, and when you get challenges like this, it keeps you sharp", says Litmanen.
He has been training with the Ajax reserve squad from November until Monday of this week. Just two days ago, he did a full training session in Amsterdam, then jumped in the car and drove six hours to Rostock. For the time being at least, he is living in a hotel in the city.
Now those reserve games, training with the juniors, and keeping fit will be changed for German league football, where the accent is on running, then a bit more running, and finally some more running.
Litmanen knows that he will have to shift on the pitch and in training, and that if results don't come, then the pace will only get fiercer.
"I've had the opportunity to get in a good spell of training", says Litmanen, "But it is only in matches that I will see how far I've come."
Since November, Litmanen has played just five matches. Two were for a young Finland team in the Bahrain tournament (against Oman and Bahrain), one was a friendly international against Italy in Messina, and he had a couple of games with the bright young things of Ajax's youth side. On Saturday he will make his début in the Ostseestadion against Schalke 04, currently lying in second place in the Bundesliga.
Litmanen believes he is capable of playing a full 90-minute stint, but he is making no promises. "Let's just see what the manager wants."
Hansa Rostock are deep in it. So deep, in fact, that they need to win eight of their last 15 games, or to collect 24 points by some other means. In the 19 Bundesliga matches so far they have managed to secure just 12 points, and they have yet to win at home in ten outings.
"That's the reason for doing this - the fact that there are still challenges", nods Litmanen.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.2.2005
Note: Jari Litmanen's début in a Hansa Rostock shirt was a personal triumph, even if the club failed to record its first home win of the season. Hansa came back from 1-0 down to the highly-fancied Schalke and were leading 2-1 until the third minute of stoppage time, when Schalke snatched an equaliser and denied the home fans the three points with almost the last kick of the match. Hansa Rostock had by this stage been reduced to ten men, following the sending-off of their Swedish striker Marcus Allbäck. Litmanen, who played the full 90 minutes and was voted Man of the Match, was given the role of playmaker in the hole behind the strikers, and he reportedly fitted in well, linking up to good effect with Danes Thomas and David Rasmussen on the flanks.
Litmanen will need to go on delivering, however, as the result leaves Hansa Rostock still a couple of points adrift of Freiburg and Bochum at the bottom of the table. Hansa travel next weekend to Kaiserlautern, currently lying 10th in the table. Before then, Litmanen has been picked by coach Antti Muurinen for the Finnish national squad to play in a friendly tournament in Cyprus, with matches on Tuesday against Latvia and on Wednesday against either Austria or the hosts. Finland's next full international is the World Cup qualifier away to the Czech Republic on March 26th.
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HEIKKI MIETTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat