We Need to Talk About Qatar

Joosep Martinson/UEFA via Getty Images

To all the players, coaches and football federations. 

To all the fans and journalists out there. 

Actually, to anyone who simply cares about human rights. 

Please keep talking about the Qatar World Cup. 

Keep the discussion going. Continue to voice your support for the migrant workers. Write, blog or tweet about them. Publish statements. Speak up. Put more pressure on Qatar and FIFA. 

Why? Because it works. And the workers — trust me — they appreciate it. 

These last 2½ years I have been on a personal journey to learn more about the situation in Qatar. 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. We players are going to be the public face of a tournament over which we have no control. So I have wanted to know more — I have even spoken directly to migrant workers. And I can tell you this much: They appreciate and feel encouraged by the fact that someone is supporting and empowering them.

I know I’m writing this article many years too late. I’m still thinking, Ah! Could we not have addressed this five years ago? Maybe we could have changed some of the decisions that were taken, and improved the conditions for the migrant workers. 

Maybe we could even have saved lives. 

F***. We woke up too late. I woke up too late. 

Tim Sparv | HJK Helsinki | Finnish National Team | The Players’ Tribune
TF-Images/Getty Images

But we can still improve lives. We can still make sure that better decisions are 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, organisations need to highlight it. And players really have to speak up about it. This is not just about Qatar, but also about how we look at other international tournaments and host countries.

I know this is hard to do for many reasons. Personally, I was asleep for years. What changed things was when we went on a training camp with Finland to Qatar in January 2019. One of our players, Riku Riski, refused to travel due to ethical reasons. That was the first time I had heard of anyone turning down a call-up because of that. I was surprised, but I also knew that Riku was a very good guy — he’s actually my teammate now at HJK Helsinki. So I began thinking, What am I not seeing here?

I was unaware of what was really going on in Qatar. I tended to look at big organisations like FIFA and just assume that they know what they’re doing. So when Qatar got it, I was sure that they had done their research. Sure, it seemed a little strange to pick a tiny desert country for the biggest football tournament in the world. But hey, they probably had a plan for improving society down there somehow ... right?

But then I started reading about human rights violations and the exploitation of migrant workers. I was startled. And yet for a while, it was all background noise to me. I was aware of it, but somehow I didn’t wake up to what it really meant

I suspect that a lot of people can relate to this. 

Many are still sleeping. 

I tended to look at big organisations like FIFA and just assume that they know what they’re doing.

Tim Sparv

It’s so easy to get lost in the details of your own life. When we went to Qatar, I was obsessing about so much else. How could we improve our team? Where was the best place to train in January? I was in that bubble, you know? It seems crazy that while migrant workers were suffering and even dying in Qatar I was worrying about the distance between our midfield and our defence. But we all tend to put our own lives first, right? It’s a natural instinct.

Luckily, Riku saw the bigger picture. Since the Nordic press had already written a lot about Qatar, they began asking us questions. 

“Why are you here?”

“Why are you not doing the same as Riku?”

These were hard questions to face up to. You are expected to elaborate on all these sensitive topics on camera, like a diplomat or a politician. Some of the players were there for the first time — they were as excited as little kids just to pull on the national shirt, and suddenly they were being forced to answer questions about a foreign country, its ways of dealing with migrant workers and its human rights track record. 

“Are you aware of how many migrant workers have died in Qatar?”

It was uncomfortable for all of us. And I realised that I had no good answers. In fact, new questions began to pop up in my head. 

Is this really what we should be doing? 

By being here, are we giving indirect support to a regime that we shouldn’t? 

So we players and the football federation took a long, hard look in the mirror and decided not to have any more camps in Qatar. But I still felt uncomfortable. Clearly there was something important going on. And, just as clearly, I had not spent enough time thinking about it. 

Tim Sparv | HJK Helsinki | Finnish National Team | The Players’ Tribune
Press Association via AP Images

So to learn more, I got in touch with FIFPRO, the organisation that represents more than 65,000 professional footballers worldwide. They have been fantastic. They have given me a lot of information about Qatari laws, recent reforms and what life is actually like for the workers in the country. They have also helped me understand what actually hides behind the global headlines. You hear about unpaid wages, abusive employment relationships and a disregard by many employers for the reforms that have been passed.

About two weeks ago, Amnesty International reported that Qatar had failed to properly investigate the deaths of thousands of migrant workers over the last decade, and that its inaction ruled out financial compensation for their families. In February, The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded in December 2010 — and those were workers from just five countries: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Apparently a significant number of them were there because of the World Cup. How can you read that and still feel indifferent?

In August, FIFPRO put me in direct touch with some workers in Qatar through a digital meeting. That talk really opened my eyes. Qatar has said that it has improved its labour laws. You read that and go, Oh, great! But in that meeting, it became clear that these laws are not being implemented very well. What the workers want right now is that these laws be fully implemented, with a guarantee that this will continue beyond 2022.

I had one conversation with a woman that really got to my heart. She was very passionate about helping her fellow workers, but she was also disappointed and angry. She told me about having to work 16 hours a day without any days off. She also said that if a female worker had a complaint, the police would always take the employer’s side. We’re talking about stuff like rape allegations here. These were grave allegations, and yet these women were not even being listened to. 

That was brutal to hear. Even with the latest positive reform, let’s not for a minute think that things are O.K. in Qatar. There is still a long way to go. 

The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded.

Tim Sparv

After we had spoken, I was glad that I had at least involved myself in this discussion. But I also felt helpless, because I would like to do so much more. 

Why am I in this fortunate position and these workers are not? 

I really think life is a lottery, you know? I was lucky to grow up in Finland. The workers in Qatar are putting in way more hours on the job than we in the Nordic countries do, but it’s far easier for us to build a good life. We got the winning ticket. 

It’s a tragedy to hear of deaths and struggles that are connected to football, this game that we all love and that is supposed to improve lives. I still have so many questions about why FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup. How could such a small group of people make a decision that affects the lives of millions? 

Where were the fans? The players? The NGOs? 

Where were the human rights experts? 

Why were all these social issues ignored? 

I do appreciate that some things have changed at FIFA since then. A lot of the people who voted for Qatar, those who bribed and took bribes, have been kicked out. Before the 2026 World Cup was awarded, FIFA said it would take human rights and environmental protection into account during the bidding process. It made documents like the bid evaluation report public. So it seems like they’re cleaning up the place. I really hope they are.

Tim Sparv | HJK Helsinki | Finnish National Team | The Players’ Tribune
Hassan Ammar/AP Photo

But 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 like we’re standing on the outside screaming at these people, “Hey! Please let us in! Please let us know what’s going on!” It’s very frustrating. 

I just wish more players would speak up about it. 

It’s not like we footballers have to be silent, like in the past. We have social media accounts, we have platforms like The Players’ Tribune, we have FIFPRO and our local players’ unions that support us. We can publish our thoughts whenever we wish, and when we do, the media writes about it. The fans and the public read it. We have more influence than ever before — we just have to use it. 

I’m not expecting too many young players to step forward. It’s hard for a 17-year-old to come straight out of school to play in front of 50,000 people. We throw them into the lion’s cage and hope they survive, which is crazy. Most of them have enough to deal with as it is. 

I also respect that not every footballer wants to talk about these issues. A part of the dressing room will always want to stick to football. 

Then there are the consequences. We all know that if a player speaks up about the politics of certain countries, he or she might get in trouble. It might not even be with the owners or directors. It can be with a big sponsor whose interests have been damaged. Personally I have never had an issue like this, because I’ve played for very sensible clubs, but I know players who know they’ll be in big trouble if they speak about issues like Qatar. They are afraid. 

There is always going to be a backlash, no matter what you do. When the Finnish national team took a knee, I got more abuse on Twitter than I ever had before. But it didn’t really bother me, because we knelt as part of an antiracism campaign, and it was important that we took part. I know that the majority of Finns backed it. If a smaller part of Finnish society disagreed, so be it. 

So I would encourage other players to be brave. Qatar isn’t even a political topic, it’s a humanitarian one. If nothing else, just highlight it. Bring it to people’s attention. 

Saying something is so much better than saying nothing. 

We have more influence than ever before — we just have to use it. 

Tim Sparv

You know, I feel that we in Europe are lagging behind the U.S. when it comes to player activism. What LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe have been doing, I’d like to see more of that here, especially among the big names. I’m just a nobody from Finland. Imagine if all of us began to talk about topics like Qatar and beyond. 

Do we understand how much power we have as footballers? It would be a game-changer, for sure.

I’ve got to applaud Marcus Rashford. He’s so young — I was just a baby when I was his age — but he has already changed his country. He was a superstar before. Now he has become an icon. I hope players look at him and go, Should I not be doing more, too?

You also have the Hungary goalkeeper, Péter Gulácsi, who spoke out against the Hungarian law that effectively banned LGBT couples from adopting children. He knew that he was going to be criticised by a lot of people — and he was — but he did it anyway. That to me shows personality and courage. 

We have been discussing what we can do in the Finland camp. I personally don’t think boycotting is the solution now. It would not bring any positive change to the workers in the country — quite the contrary. Some people will say that we’re not doing enough, and that’s a fair opinion. You always have this voice going, I should be doing more. 

But what we can do is keep the discussion going. In March, the Finnish football federation released an open letter with five other Nordic federations asking FIFA to address the human rights situation in Qatar at its congress. Five days ago, the six federations sent another letter asking FIFA to make sure that Qatar properly investigate the thousands of deaths that Amnesty has reported. Norway have worn T-shirts demanding respect for human rights, and Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have done the same. These are powerful athletes taking a stand live on prime-time TV. It’s the kind of stuff we need. 

I think more teams are now thinking, What can we do? Can we do more than just winning football games? Can we help people who are not as privileged as ourselves?

Let’s not forget about what will happen after the tournament. FIFA is talking about tangible change, so will the kafala system be abolished forever? Will the reforms be implemented across the country and beyond 2022? Will the workers get their basic rights? Normally people forget about the host country once the tournament is over. That cannot be allowed to happen here.

We also need to make sure that everyone knows about what’s happening now. Let’s wake people up. I’m sure there are many people in Finland alone who have no idea what’s going on in Qatar.  

Tim Sparv | HJK Helsinki | Finnish National Team | The Players’ Tribune
Anton Vaganov/Pool/Getty Images

Does the Qatar government read these stories? Are they affected? I think they are. They have already changed their laws, and that would not have happened without the political pressure that had been applied. If more players and national teams join in, we will strengthen the legacy and social impact that the tournament can have in Qatar. I’m sure of it. 

When I spoke to the workers, they were very happy that we were involved. They reiterated that we should keep making noise about this, keep supporting them, and stand up for their rights as workers and human beings.

So I would encourage every player who participates in these qualifiers to at least think about how the migrant workers are being treated, and how their families are being affected. Think about the privilege we have as players and the power of our platforms. Those workers don’t have that same privilege, but we can support them by telling their stories and raising our voices together. 

If you can summon the courage, get informed, get involved and speak up. Talk to a journalist, write a tweet, post something on Instagram. Get in touch with workers’ representatives, human rights organisations or your players’ union, and ask how you can help make an impact for the workers on the ground.

Maybe some people will abuse you for raising your voice — perhaps they would either way. Maybe you will have some emails to reply to and some phone calls to answer. 

But when the history of this World Cup is written, you will be on the right side.

Tim Sparv | HJK Helsinki | Finnish National Team | The Players’ Tribune