English om

Professional soccer player Tim Sparv:”We can do so much more than just winning games.” 

When Tim Sparv, wrote an open letter about the situation in Qatar his words quickly went viral. Martin Schibbye shadowed the retired soccer star during a school visit in Helsinki to hear about his new teammates – housekeepers, elementary school teachers and construction workers.

It’s 2019, when the defensive midfielder Tim Sparv pulls on Finnish soccer jersey in the locker room below the bleachers of Khalifa International Stadium, in Qatar. He knows they are up against a big challenge. 

Ever since he was a kid, he’s told himself that stealing the ball from the opponents is just as good as scoring a goal, and he takes great pride in the one-on-ones on the soccer field.  

The fact that they are playing Sweden ups the stakes even more, even if it’s just a practice game. Both countries are chasing a spot in the upcoming qualifier tournament for the World Cup 2022, and the rivalry between the two Nordic countries runs deep. 

This is very much on Sparv and his teammates’ minds as they run out on the perfect artificial grass of the arena, the very same as eventually the bronze game of the 2022 Cup will be played. 

Swedish media dons headlines about strategy and tactics, and the Swedish coach has instructed his players to take risks, cover a lot of field and be mobile, also without the ball. 

In Finland pre-game headlines have focused on something entirely different, about Riku Riski. Or rather the lack of the star forward on the Finish team roster. After he learned that more than 1,200 migrant workers died while working in Qatar on world cup related projects, he declined to play. 

Sparv’s spontaneous reaction was surprise. ”Oh my God, it’s the World Cup. How could you say no thank you to the most honorable games possible?”

Once they arrive Sparv got a lot of media attention as usual, because of his role as captain. But instead of asking about preparations and expected performance, journalists want to know why he is there: “Why are you not doing the same as Riku?”

Instead of delivering a “We are just here to play football” type of response he tries to meet the questions heads on. 

It didn’t work out so well. 

“A soccer player is like a sheep, we go where we are told,” he tells one Finnish reporter.

In the back of his mind questions are forming. About FIFA and that such a large organization would know what they are doing. He assumes that when they gave the World Cup to Qatar they must have done their homework. Right? Or, isn’t it a little strange that they chose a country in the desert with temperatures upward of 40 degrees Celsius, for the world’s largest football extravaganza? 

But now he is there and has to focus on the game. The hollering from his teammates, the smell of artificial grass, the powerful stadium strobes, the adrenaline push those thoughts away. The referee blows his black whistle and the thuds of the ball against soccer cleats shifts Sparv’s attention away from migrant workers for the next 90 minutes.

The Swedes aren’t living up to their coach’s words. The game is static and slow. All players are a little sluggish, having just come back from winter break. But things go well for Sparv. He leads his team effortlessly, winning most one-on-ones, and together with the other mid fielder, he turns the Finnish game from defensive to offensive. In the twenty-second minute someone passes Sparv, who sends a hard and timely long ball that is tipped in to the net by striker, Eero Markkanen. 

One nothing to Finland. 

In the second half, the Swedes work hard and come back strong. But it’s not enough. Instead, Finland scores another goal. 

Afterward, few people remember the sweet victory. The big news, first in Finland and then globally, seems to be that Riku Riski declined to play. For ethical reasons.  

A decision that will affect Tim Sparv forever. 

The former captain of Finland’s men’s international football team, Tim Sparv, has called on players, fans, journalists and “anyone who simply cares about human rights” to put more pressure on Qatar.

It’s April 2022. The air is crisp and there’s still snow on the lakes around Helsinki but the warm rays of the spring sun is melting the ice around bridges and creeks. On a hill southeast of the capitol city, lay Brändö Elementary School. 

The concern that children, particularly boys, read to little is an issue in most European countries, and in Finland, they have engaged the captain of the national soccer team to help increase the interest by a nationwide campaign. 

“I hope I can be a role model. If they see that Tim Sparv reads maybe they will think that they should too,” he says on his way to the school cafeteria where seven-year-old students are waiting to hear him talk. It’s the first time they have a lecture since Covid-19 closed down the world. 

Books have always played a big role in Sparv’s life both to calm down after games and to learn. He runs a book club with Förlaget, a Finnish publishing company. And now they are on an school tour to speak about sports and the importance of reading and whatever else may interests the kids. 

Brändö Elementary is a traditional school where the cafeteria looks more like a grand dining hall with tall ceilings and white walls, and teachers that sound like military officers. They are still taking Covid-19 very seriously. All visitors are required to wear masks and the vice principal tells us they will test the evacuation alarm before our lecture. 

Tim Sparv was only 16 when he moved to South Hampton to pursue a career with their youth academy. He was a top student but chose soccer over studies and never finished high school. Now, at 35 when his career as soccer pro is over, he’s trying to get that diploma. 

“I just finished English and history, and this fall it will be social studies and Finish,” he says. 

The exams are a big deal for his peers but Sparv doesn’t worry so much. 

“Age puts things in perspective and I don’t put my life on hold to study for a test.”

Life as a professional athlete was a bit of a bubble and he describes both his recent studies and the school tour as an educational journey. 

“For so long all I did was playing soccer during the day and then watching and analyzing my games on video at night. In hindsight I have to admit it was a little…empty.”

Sparv describes himself as a “somewhat boring” reader. Now that he has more time, it’s not the classics that are on his reading list, it’s books about soccer, sports psychology and memoirs. He prefers reading that offers straight up and useful knowledge about how to become a good coach, or father. Tim and his partner welcomed their first child, a daughter, in 2021. They live in Prague.  

“I like books that enrich my life,” he says while the young students pour into the open glass door and take their seats, all the while looking wide-eyed at their soccer hero.

Sparv signs autographs on arms and in notebooks.  

Despite adding that “we woke up too late” to this issue, Sparv said that there is still time to improve and even save the lives of migrant workers and put an end to human rights violations in the country.

In hindsight it’s easy to see everything clearly. For Tim Sparv life is divided in before and after the Finish team’s spring training in Qatar 2019. 

Questions from journalists kept coming also after that practice game victory over Sweden in January 2019. “What were they even doing there? Didn’t they know Qatar was a dictatorship? What did he think about the many dead migrant workers who already in 2019 were in the thousands?

After official press conferences, the players kept talking amongst themselves. Teammate Riku Riski’s boycott had set everything in motion. As the team captain, Sparv felt a responsibility to not dodge the hard questions and together the Finish soccer team took a long, hard look in the mirror and decided they didn’t need to be in Qatar. 

It was not FIFA or UEFA that had planned the training camp but Finish Soccer Association. The Finish players came to a joint conclusion. 

“We don’t want to be here. We do not want to support a regime that we shouldn’t.” 

But the situation was still gnawing on the team. Had FIFA and UEFA known what consequences would face both for the soccer players and most of all, migrant workers, when scheduling a World Cup in Qatar? 

Shortly thereafter Sparv got in touch with FIFPRO, an organization that represents 65,000 professional footballers and got information about the migrant workers situation. He learned that even if there had been some reforms, people were still dying and being abused. 

Now he also got the testimony about Qatar’s many housekeepers, a group even more vulnerable since they work behind closed doors. FIFPRO got him in touch with a woman named Maggie who was working to organize the housekeepers, and their conversation really got to him. She shared stories about unwanted advances to sexual assaults, unpaid salaries and how people actually had to flee from their employers. 

It was brutal.

Maggie was very passionate but also disappointed and angry.

“’Tim, this is how bad it is,’ she said with such desperation that I understood that even if things improved somewhat, there was still a long way to go,” Sparv says. 

That the person who listened to Maggie was a professional soccer player meant a lot.

“She appreciated that there are other people working for better conditions for the migration workers,” he says. “And suddenly it felt like we were on the same team, the housekeeper and I.”

Even if Tim hadn’t been engaged in the conditions for migrant workers before and had a lot to learn about terms, wages and laws, he knew one thing – how to lead and be a team player.  

This was a new type of team, no strikers, midfielders and coaches, but migrant workers, housekeepers, scientists and international construction companies. The feeling was the same though. What? How? When? What’s our strategy and tactical plan? 

“I knew that realm and it inspired me.”

The Finnish former captain therefore called on his fellow professional players to consider how the migrant workers and their families are being treated.

In the fall of 2021, Tim Sparv penned an open letter to the The Players Tribune titling it: ”We have to talk about Qatar”. The text is explosive and quickly goes viral.

“F***. We woke up too late. I woke up too late,” he wrote, emphasizing that lives could still be spared and better decisions made in the future. ”To do that, though, we need to keep the spotlight on Qatar. Fans need to talk about it, journalists need to write about it, organizations need to highlight it. And players really have to speak up about it. This is not just about Qatar, but also how we look at other international tournaments and host countries.” 

As the captain of the Finnish national team, he knew they might play on other arenas that have cost the lives of migrant workers.

When the Finnish national team had supported something in the past, taking a knee against racism, for example, Sparv took more abuse on Twitter than ever before. This time it’ was different. Some people wanted him to just play soccer and stop being a human rights activist, while others thought he wasn’t doing enough. 

“But the majority of reactions were positive both to this and the big cultural change where both soccer and the national team takes a stance,” Sparv says. 

What was in his inbox was what he calls, ”What Aboutism”. Why was Sparv getting involved in Qatar and not the war in Yemen? Or, refugees from Afghanistan? 

“Absolutely, if I had the time I would have spoken up about all the injustices in the world, but now I was about to play a World Cup in Qatar so that’s where I put down my foot.”

To Sparv it was a no-brainer that he as the captain should act.

“Children and young people watch interviews and that gives us enormous opportunities to make an impact.” 

In his open letter to The Players Tribune he asks where the other players stand. One of the reasons Sparv thinks that there aren’t more players speaking up has to do with sponsors. 

“Several of the best players in the world have sponsorships with brands that are based in the Middle East. They also have whole teams advising the players about what to post and what not,” he says and urges other players to be brave and bringing the situation to people’s attention. “Saying something is so much better than saying nothing. Qatar isn’t even a political topic, it’s a humanitarian one.”

It’s definitely not too much pressure on a professional soccer player to speak out publically. They do it all the time. 

“We are used to have to speak about our game at the press conferences, delivering cliché after cliché, for ten minutes and then go back to our hotel rooms,” Sparv says. “But getting an insight in what’s going on in the countries and societies we visit, that’s part of the captain’s role. The times when we could just focus on the tactical aspects of our jobs are bygones.”

Sparv thinks that what the player activism we’ve seen so far is just the beginning of a dramatic change of the traditional and pretty conservative soccer world. 

“We have an enormous power if we unite,” he says. “We have seen it with the Olympics in China, the World Cup in Qatar and Formula 1 in Saudi Arabia, but I think we will start seeing professional athletes go on strike if this continues.” 

Sparv also thinks that Europe is behind the United States in terms of player activism, and mentions LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe. He wishes more of the super stars would do the same. 

“I’m just a national soccer team captain of Finland, but imagine if everyone started talking about Qatar? It would be a game changer and we’d understand what enormous power we do have.” 

So how do we change things? 

For one, players need to be allowed to have louder voice. 

Like Sparv wrote in his open letter: “They can still give us players a bigger role. We are essentially the product that the countries are bidding for, and which FIFA sells to broadcasting partners for fortunes. But we have no say in where the World Cup is played. Nobody even bothers to tell us. We find out on the nine o’clock news. Oh, look, we’re gonna play in Qatar.”

It’s deeply frustrating, he adds. Like standing outside and banging on a gate, asking to be let inside: “Hello, let us in, tell us what’s going on.”

Sparv hopes that when we look back at the Qatar World Cup, it will be as a turning point. 

“What happened 12 years ago when people accepted bribes to vote for Qatar – it’s disgusting. We can only hope that this is the last time a major championship is arranged in a country that has no focus on human rights. I would be surprised if FIFA didn’t think twice before they make the same mistake.” 

“I’m not an expert, but as the captain of the Finnish national team, I know that I might soon be playing in stadiums that have cost workers their lives,” Sparv wrote in an article(siirryt toiseen palveluun) for The Player’s Tribune.

Back among the seven-year-olds at the Brändö school cafeteria, Sparv tells the students about his upbringing in northern Finland and how soccer has been his life since he was five years old. How he always dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. 

“When we had art class, I always drew soccer balls or arenas. If I wrote a paper it was about soccer games, soccer was my life.”

He talks about his travels and lists all the places he has lived, Sweden, Holland, the Czech Republic, England. 

“It’s important to read,” he says. “It’s relaxing if you are stressed and it makes you smarter.”

And then the questions are fired off. 

How do you celebrate when you score? What is the best about playing football? What’s your favorite topic in school? Have you ever been invited to another soccer player’s birthday party? Have you ever received a red card? How many goals have you scored? How far can you kick a ball? What are you reading? Dog or cat?

Sparv takes the questions as they come. 

Defensive mid-fielders don’t score all that many goals, about 20 for the national team. He can kick a ball 60 meters. History was his favorite topic in school. He had gotten a few red cards since he “arrived late to the duels” but not as many as he could have gotten since he always showed the ref respect. 

Suddenly it gets quiet and the energy changes in the large room. One of the children has asked: ”Books or soccer?” 

Sparv hesitates for a split second, glances at his publisher and he declares: “Soccer!” 

All students get up and cheer, stomping their feet on the floor. 

Honesty always wins. 

Sparv shares stories about important games. Like the European Cup in 2021, when they played against Denmark and the Danish super star, Christian Eriksen, collapsed on the field.  

He also tells them about how his body has started protesting after decades as a professional athlete. How a knee hurt despite injections, and how that took away the pleasure of playing and made him decide to quit playing at the end of 2021, go back to school and become a soccer coach. 

There isn’t a whole lot of patience for nostalgia among seven-year-olds. 

“Favorite color?” 



The children keep firing off more questions and Sparv humbly explains that all players on a team are equally important, not just strikers who pull off flamboyant feints and bicycle kicks. That you’ll only get better if you work hard, there are no shortcuts. And, that the book whose affected him the most is Nelson Mandela’s memoir, and the part about his time at Robben Island. Not exactly answers that draw laughter or smattering applauses, but offers the kids clues to follow in life. 

When one child asks Tim Sparv if he’s met the soccer player Tim Sparv, it’s time to finish up. A soccer ball and a match jersey is thrown to the audience and everyone gets an autograph. 

The cafeteria empties as fast as it filled up. Sparv looks around. Where did everyone go? 

“Fans need to talk about it, journalists need to write about it, organisations need to highlight it. And players really have to speak up about it,” Tim Sparv says.

When Tim Sparv returned to Qatar in the spring of 2022 a lot was the same: the skyscrapers, the heat and the migrant workers seeking protection in the shade. 

In his open letter in The Players Tribune Sparv encouraged other players to “Keep the discussion going. Continue to voice your support for the migrant workers. Write, blog or tweet about them.” 

He realized right away that it was appreciated by the migrant workers and that led to FIFA and others to start paying attention to the criticism. Also when he was in place to meet “those who know more than I do” as Sparv expressed called the shot callers, he could see some results. Those who have worked at the arenas and hotels where the teams will live, their pay and conditions had improved. 

“It’s not all black and white, the way it can appear in media. There have been some changes,” Sparv says. 

But, he points out, even if things have gotten better for these 30,000 – 40,000 people working on projects, directly tied to the Qatar World Cup, there are still more than a million migrant workers in other locations who does not have the medias attention.

Members of the group that was herded around along with Sparv included the international construction union, soccer club teams and human rights organizations.

“There are many of us who are worried what happens when the spotlights are removed from Qatar, so they are in the process of forming a ‘workers center’ that will look out for the migrant workers also after the cup is over.” 

Upon his return Sparv was also surprised about meetings with some people. 

“I thought the members of the ‘Supreme Committee’ would be more defensive and full of propaganda. But they were actually interested to keep the dialogue going. I got the feeling that they listened.”

Sparv also met Maggie from the housekeeper organization again. She told of new shelters where migrant workers can seek refuge from abusive employers, and about new laws and reforms. She also cautioned that laws aren’t always implemented. 

“But it made an impression to hear her talk about the changes,” Sparv says. 

Many times when talking about Qatar Sparv is met with prejudice, many think that the migrant workers are ‘just victims’. 

It’s a stereotype he wants to challenge. 

“Migrant workers are brave and strong people who get tricked and used and abused, but it’s too one-dimensional to just label them as victims.”

Det finska landslagets före detta kapten Tim Sparv har under de senaste åren aktivt tagit ställning i människorättsfrågor. Martin Schibbye mötte honom i Helsingfors för att fråga om hans nya lagkamrater och kampen om Qatar.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be the first ever played outside of May, June or July. The tournament has been shifted to November and December due to the intense summer heat in Qatar.

In November 2022 the referee will blow his whistle and open the World Cup in Qatar. It will be festive. The 86,000-strong audience will cheer. But few, if any, of those who have built those arenas will be in the bleachers. Some of them are no longer alive. 

Sparv is in the teachers’ room at Brändö Elementary School. On the table in front of him is the box with cards that Blankspot has compiled called Cards of Qatar. Just under 100 stories of those who traveled to Qatar only to never return. 

The material leaves a big impression. 

“Sometimes we are exposed to numbers and statistics and that’s hard to relate to,” he says. “This is about human lives, we get a face and a story about families and their tragedy.” 

The stories of parents who have traveled to Qatar in order to send their children to school really hits extra hard. 

“When they die it’s even worse. It’s a blow for the future of a whole family.”

Sparv is still a player activist and engaged in the conditions for the migrant workers. But in November when the referee blows the whistle, he’ll be busy playing on another team. In a way it’s the most important challenge of his life, he’s facing a new “competitor” that wants to feint and get past him in a game that plays by completely different rules. 

“In order to win we have to keep the discussion alive. More footballers and teams need to consider: What more can we do than just winning games?” 

Back to Cards of Qatar.