FC Lahti hope Jari Litmanen can be persuaded to put off retirement for one more year as they plan their return to European football next season, with coach Ilkka Mäkelä saying: "If Jari stays, it will make a big difference."
A third-placed finish in this season's Veikkausliiga has earned the club a first entry to continental competition since the 1993/94 UEFA Cup. Having left Fulham FC in the summer without playing a game, the 37-year-old Litmanen helped keep Lahti on course for Europe with three goals in six substitute appearances, and now Mäkelä wants the forward to give it another 12 months.
Lahti-born Litmanen is known simply as 'Kuningas' – The King – in Finland, having won the UEFA Champions League with AFC Ajax in 1994/95 and the UEFA Cup with Liverpool FC in 2000/01. "Our team are not experienced in Europe," said Mäkelä as he discussed the 118-cap veteran's future. "If Jari stays, it will make a big difference. He has been in those competitions a few times."
'A massive thing'
At 45, Mäkelä also has experience of European football, having led Myllykosken Pallo-47 in both UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League qualifying in recent campaigns, so he knows what a chance to compete in the new UEFA Europa League means. "For those who haven't been involved before, it is a massive thing," he said. "It makes everybody try harder. And, of course, for the players it is huge."
Lahti are much changed since their last continental excursion. Back in 1993, they were FC Kuusysi when they lost to Brøndby IF in the UEFA Cup second round, later changing their name at the time of their 1996 merger with local rivals Lahden Reipas. The 100,000-population city's crowning achievement had come when Kuusysi reached the 1985/86 European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-finals, going down 1-0 on aggregate to eventual winners FC Steaua Bucureşti.
They can only dream of such progress now, yet if financial constraints curtail their transfer ambitions this winter, keeping hold of Litmanen would be the biggest feat of all. "Now we are waiting for Litmanen's decision about next season," said Mäkelä. "We also need to fill the gaps in our squad. We have lost two defenders [Pyry Kärkkäinen and Eetu Sassila] and a striker [Pekka Kainu]."
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