Image size 28 Kb A minor football power's first superstar

Against all the odds, one Finnish soccer player has made it into the world elite. Jari Litmanen is now one of the stars on the legendary Spanish team FC Barcelona, demonstrating that Sweden, Denmark and Norway are no longer the only places where Nordic football wizards are to be found. Nor will Litmanen remain an exception for much longer. For example, Mikael Forsell, still only 18, has been signed by the English Premier League club Chelsea and Sami Hyypiä by Liverpool. Only time will tell how long the Finnish national team needs to travel along the road to the tournaments in which only the best pit their skills against each other.

Finland's only international soccer success happened long before independence in 1917. The country was still a grand duchy within the Russian Empire when its national team came fourth in the Olympic tournament in Stockholm in 1912. In every Olympiad since (except as the host country in in Helsinki in 1952 and at the truncated games in Moscow in 1980) as well as in World Championships, Finland has made an early exit during the qualifying rounds. On the world soccer ranking list, the country's position is somewhere around 60. Soccer is played nearly everywhere and is the world's biggest and most popular sport.

Soccer has been played as an organised sport in Finland for nearly a century, but has never become one of the most popular disciplines. The big team game in summer is pesäpallo - resembling American baseball and played on any significant scale only in Finland - and in winter ice hockey is much more popular. This game is important only in North America and Europe. Finland is a world power in ice hockey and Finnish professional players with teams abroad have attained superstar status. A crowning moment came in 1995, when Finland won the World Championship. More than 100,000 fans gathered in Helsinki's Market Square to give the team a hero's reception.

The situation with soccer is very different. Clubs are delighted if a league game attracts a crowd of three thousand, tiny in comparison with the average of 33,000 at A-league games in Italy. Finns find it almost incomprehensible that an ordinary league game at Rio de Janeiro's MaracanĂ£ Stadium can draw a crowd of 150,000. That explains why it is so difficult for people in Jari Litmanen's home country to grasp how famous he is abroad. In fact, he ranks alongside Formula One champion Mika Häkkinen as the Finn who is best-known on the international scene.

Everyone loves the best

Image size 6 Kb Talent scouts from other countries have been interested in Finnish soccer players since the 1950s. Many other Finnish players are nowadays on leading European teams, but Jari Litmanen, 28, is the first real superstar in the Finnish football world. He carved out his career in the Netherlands.

Wearing the shirt of Amsterdam's legendary Ajax club between 1992 and 1999, Litmanen achieved more or less everything that a professional football player can dream of. He was on the team that won three Dutch championships and became the top goal-scorer in both the Dutch Cup and the premier league. He has been voted "best footballer in the Netherlands". He has also helped win the Champions' League, the European Supercup and the World Cup, in which championship series teams from Europe and South America battle it out.

Jari Litmanen has been Ajax's most popular player. Fans visiting the club's shop can buy Barbie-sized dolls of him, along with scarves, mugs, shirts, posters and a great many other objects bearing his image. In summer 1999, when the news broke that he would be leaving Ajax, the Jari peaked caps were immediately sold out. He has dark hair and his name has even been used to sell a liquorice-sprinkled ice-cream stick called Jari Ijs. Many soccer-loving Dutch parents have called their sons Jari - probably the nicest recognition that any sportsperson could hope for. He has a reputation for gentlemanly behaviour on and off the pitch and gained respect for learning Dutch - said to be a difficult language - during his eight years in Amsterdam.

The stars choose FC Barcelona

For seven years Ajax gave Jari Litmanen everything possible - and he gave the club his all. Now, he believes, it is time for a new country and a new top club: Spain and FC Barcelona, which has a century of proud traditions to cherish and, as a Catalonian institution is actually much more than a football club.

There is a saying in the soccer world that if a player could choose his team, it would be Barcelona. Those who have made that choice include Diego Maradona of Argentina, Gary Lineker of England, Michael Laudrup of Denmark, Johan Cruijff and Ronald Koeman of the Netherlands, Romario and Ronaldo of Brazil - an impressive list of names to which Jari Litmanen of Finland is now being added.

Although Ajax is one of Europe's biggest and most successful clubs, Litmanen himself has said that Barcelona is twice Ajax. Everything is so big. Each day, a sports newspaper with a circulation of two million regales readers with the latest news about their football heroes. In the lead up to important games, life in Barcelona seem to be totally caught up in football fever.

HS - Jari Litmanen makes triumphant return to Amsterdam
HS - Litmanen ready to make a return against Alaves