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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May 2004, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Litmanen heads home
Jari Litmanen
Litmanen is regarded as the best Finnish player of all time
Jari Litmanen - widely regarded as the greatest Finnish player of all time - has returned to his home country to end his career with FC Lahti.

And the midfielder, formally of Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool, has said he hopes his return to the country can help develop football there, where the sport traditionally is second to ice hockey.

"Of course I am happy if I can play football," Litmanen told BBC World Service's World Football programme.

"Last time I played here was 12 years ago - it's quite a long time I have been abroad.

"If I can help in some way, I'm happy about it."

Young players

Litmanen said he was particularly impressed by efforts made by the Finnish FA and Fifa to provide plastic pitches in the country, where games have to be played in the summer because of the harsh winters.

Litmanen himself benefited from the provision of artificial pitches when a young player, and emphasised their importance to developing the next generation of Finnish players.

"I think it's one of the biggest reasons Finnish football is getting better and going forward, because we have a long winter here and cannot train outside," he said.

Finnair Stadium
The Finnair Stadium now has a state-of-the-art artificial pitch
"So it's good to have some kind of place outside where they can practice, and that's really important for the youngsters - they are the future of Finnish football."

Traditionally football in Finland has lagged behind ice hockey as a popular sport, meaning that in terms of TV audiences - and therefore sponsorship money - football lags behind.

"One thing is definitely that Finnish people watch high-quality football from television - the Champions League, English Premiership, and so on," explained Jan Molda, managing director of the Vikos Liga.

"And of course the quality of football played here in Finland isn't so good."

But football has been increasing in popularity due to the success of its exports, most noticeably Litmanen, who won the European Cup with Ajax in 1995.

And the increased number of artificial pitches has meant many more youngsters are coming into the game, as they actually have somewhere to play.

A new artificial pitch has recently been laid at Helsinki's Finnair Stadium - home of League and Cup double-winners HJK Helsinki - with help of Fifa's development programme Goal, and a total cost of 560,00 euros.

The young players, using it as a training pitch, have enthusiastically backed it.

Jari Mutakainen, the coach of the Finnish 10-year-olds, argued that if the Finnair pitch was grass they would not be able to train as much as they do now.

"It would mean that there were hour limits per week, and it wouldn't be possible for us to train here, so this is the future," he said.

"It must be the future, at least in Finland."

Warning

However, the pitch has received a considerably cooler reception from the current HJK players and their coach Keith Armstrong.

Armstrong protested before the pitch was laid, and said his fears had been confirmed.

Keith Armstrong
If everybody starts playing on the same surface, you'll have the same type of players
Keith Armstrong
"Having seen how the boys react and some of the injuries that have come, I'm even more strongly against it now than I was a year ago," he told World Football.

"I think it's a great surface for a lower-tempo football, but we play good-tempo football in Finland, and when players are twisting, turning and sprinting, tackling and checking each other, it makes it more difficult.

"I think, because it doesn't give way at all, it's usually a player's ankle that gives way."

Armstrong conceded that it solved the problem of pitches being in poor condition at the start and end of season, but added that uneven surfaces in central and southern Europe were "part and parcel of the game" and that Finnish football should not be different.

And he doubted that the artificial pitches would provide that much benefit to players in the long term either.

"If everybody starts playing on the same surface, you'll have the same type of players," he warned.

"You'll have a sterile game."


SEE ALSO
The Litmanen factor
28 Aug 02 |  Liverpool


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