Former Finland captain Tim Sparv says he hopes this month’s World Cup in Qatar will be a turning point for a sport that he believes is heading in a “dangerous” direction.
The star, who has turned to activism since retiring, has been a vocal critic of soccer’s governing body FIFA for awarding Qatar the tournament due to human rights concerns – notably the treatment of migrant workers, its laws around homosexuality and attitudes towards women in society.
FIFA, a $5.6 billion business, has been buffeted by decades-long bribery schemes that prompted a US Department of Justice probe. It’s a legacy that still looms large over the governing body and its decision to award the 2018 tournament to Russia and the impending 2022 event to Qatar.
And amid reports that Saudi Arabia could be lining up a joint bid to host the 2030 competition alongside Egypt and Greece, Sparv has demanded more from FIFA and would like to see the hosting of major tournaments “be an award for doing something good.”
“The World Cup should be an inclusive World Cup,” Sparv told CNN Sport. “Everybody should feel welcome. Everybody should feel safe and that’s just not the case.
“The trend is dangerous. It’s not a healthy direction that we’re heading towards and I feel that people in a powerful position […] all have a really, really big important role to play.”
Amid the continuing criticism of Qatar, FIFA has urged nations participating in the tournament to focus on soccer and to leave politics out of the game.
For Sparv, however, that simply isn’t an option.
Since hanging up his boots, Sparv visited Qatar with FIFPRO – the worldwide representative organization for professional footballers – and says he saw the negative impact the tournament is having on migrant workers.
“In a perfect world, we could trust our governing bodies to make good decisions for us,” he added.
“But that’s not the case and that’s why we need these critical outside voices to have an opinion and to make sure that our sport is heading in a good direction.”
Sparv says he also wants Qatar to be a catalyst for governing bodies to put players at the forefront of decision making, in order to avoid them having to choose between their profession, but also potentially taking a political stand during the tournament.
He is aware of the changes FIFA has implemented in recent years, such as the creation of the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board – an independent advisory body composed of experts on human and labor rights – and is interested to see what impact this will have going forward.
“I think there’s been a shift in our understanding of where sport is heading. I hope that we’ll have clearer rules of how we let certain countries bid for World Cups,” he said.
“I think there should be a set of criteria that should be met before they’re allowed to bid. It’s a little bit too late to demand something from Qatar when they’ve already been awarded it.
“I think the legacy is that every one of us; supporters, coaches, players, federations, everyone involved in sports, takes a stand to say this can’t happen again.”
FIFA says that it has defined and implemented a human rights policy based on the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into its official statuses in recent years.
Sparv retired in 2021 and says it took him a while to “wake up” from soccer’s “bubble.”
As a young player, he says he was often blind to the negative forces impacting the game and it wasn’t until his Finnish teammate Riku Riski refused to attend a training camp in 2019 that Sparv started educating himself about topics beyond soccer.
He has since written two pieces for The Players’ Tribune which have outlined his opposition toward the World Cup in Qatar, the latest publishing earlier this month.
However, the 35-year-old says he does not endorse player boycotts of such tournaments and admits, if he had the chance, he would have represented his country at the tournament.
He understands the hypocrisy of such a statement but says its an opportunity for players and teams to highlight the important issues.
“Playing for a national team means more than just winning football games,” Sparv said.
“You have a really fantastic opportunity to improve people’s lives, to shine a light on things that are much bigger than winning football games. To not use that opportunity would be a bit of a waste.”
While recognizing Qatar has made some positive changes to its labor laws, Sparv says the implementation of these are often poor and that he worries what will happen when the world’s gaze inevitably moves on from the 2022 World Cup.
Sparv has decided not to attend the tournament that begins on November 20 but says he would rethink his stance should there be an opportunity to perform some meaningful work.
On a whole, though, he’s optimistic that change will come and says he’s devoted to using his platform to keep the pressure on the people making decisions about the future of the beautiful game.
“I’m really curious to see where where we go from here,” he said.
“The spotlight from media, from journalists, just me personally, a nobody from from Finland, I’ve done so many interviews when it comes to these topics.
“That was never the case before so I think that’s a good direction that we are heading towards.”
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy told CNN Sport that the World Cup will “be an inclusive, safe tournament” and that labor reforms have significantly improved the lives of thousands of workers.
“Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, background, religion, gender, orientation or nationality,” it said in a statement to CNN.
“We have also always been committed to ensuring that this World Cup leaves a transformational social, human, economic and environmental legacy, and is remembered as a landmark moment in the history of our region.”
It added: “Like any country, there is always room for improvement. This work will continue long after the World Cup has concluded, as it is important to us that we continue to instil and build on the progress made over the last decade.”