I have two things I want to tell you.
One is what happens when you, as a player, speak up on Qatar.
The other is what’s at stake at this World Cup, because I don’t think everyone fully understands it. Yes, thousands of lives have been lost. But if we stay silent now, decisions could be made that will lead to even more deaths. And as for the game we love, well, I fear it is nearing a breaking point.
I know it can be hard to comprehend the true human cost of this World Cup. Last year alone we saw some terrible news about the death toll since it was awarded in 2010.
February 2021: More than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar.
August 2021: More than 15,000 non-Qataris dead for “unexplained” reasons.
We’re all thinking, That’s horrible. That’s crazy.
Maybe you even retweeted one of those articles or shared your outrage.
Qatar has denied the numbers that human rights organisations have reported, and in January FIFA did too, saying that only three people have died in the construction of the stadiums. Well, I know who I choose to believe.
But if we’re being honest, we don’t really see the people behind the numbers, do we?
We don’t see the husband trying to provide for his family in Nepal or India or Bangladesh — who pays a huge recruitment fee and heads off to work for a few years. When he gets to Qatar, he realises, F***, I've been tricked. He’s working 16 hours a day in 40°C and essentially lives in a slum. His employers take his passport and refuse to pay him. One day he commits suicide or dies for reasons that are never properly explained. Back home the family has lost its breadwinner and is burdened with debt. Some are compensated, but how do you put a value on a human life? The kids have lost their dad. A wife has lost her husband.
You can multiply this kind of story by thousands. It is an enormous tragedy.
And still, how can we FEEL the scale of it? There was one tweet that made it sink in for me, personally.
It calculated what would happen if we held a minute of silence for every migrant worker who has died to make this World Cup a reality. And these were numbers on the conservative end of the estimated deaths.
One minute for every human life. One minute for every father, brother, son....
The first 44 matches would be played in silence.
That hits your heart.
I also know a Swedish journalist who has a website called Cards of Qatar. They’re like typical football cards, only that each tells the story of a dead migrant worker.
If you read a few, you will understand why I published my article on Qatar last year.
I want to be clear that I’m not an expert on these issues. I’m just curious, and with the article I published here last year I wanted to say that we could still help the migrant workers by putting pressure on Qatar. The Qatari government has passed new laws designed to improve the working conditions, but when I went there last year to visit some of the workers, it was clear that these laws were being poorly implemented, and that not everybody was benefitting from them. One African woman told me that female domestic workers were running away from houses because they were being abused. Which is just horrible.
The migrants are desperate for workers’ centres where they can connect with each other and get legal advice. Some have demanded from the authorities the rights they have been denied, even if it means taking on an inhumane system that always favours the employer.
This is something that has not been written enough about. I don’t really think we understand the amount of strength and solidarity these migrant workers have. Without their sense of unity, more people would probably have died.
Today I believe there is even more at stake. On the one hand, I fear how the workers will be treated once the spotlight moves on from Qatar, because many of them will continue working there. Will it return to how it was 10 years ago?
I also fear for the sport itself. Where are we heading?
We just had a report on the sexual abuse scandal in women’s football in the U.S. — a systemic failure over decades. The crazy football schedule is wearing the players down, and coaches like Jürgen Klopp speak about it many times a year, but nobody’s listening. You have the Super League. You have dodgy ownership structures. I used to think that getting to host a major tournament was an award for good behaviour, but now we are giving the Olympics to China and Formula One races to Saudi Arabia.
And just when you want football to strike back, your childhood heroes sign up as ambassadors for Qatar….
I want to believe that this is just a dark spell. I hope it is. But I fear it’s just the beginning.
It’s been reported that Saudi Arabia will bid for the 2030 World Cup together with Greece and Egypt. It would be absolutely astonishing if Saudi Arabia got it, but this is a test for FIFA. Now they have an independent human rights advisory board. They have integrated human rights into the bidding process. They should tell Saudi Arabia, “If you want any chance of being a part of that bid, you should do this, this and this. You have two years.” And if not? Forget it. If you’re demanding changes after the World Cup has been awarded, you’re too late. Your leverage is gone.
But if Saudi Arabia gets it, that means FIFA will have viewed Qatar as a success. The show will have been popular and lucrative enough to outweigh the bad p.r. They’ll essentially be saying, “Yes, there will be some criticism, but it will be worth it.” You know?
You expect an organisation like FIFA to lead by example. Instead they sent out that letter last week telling the competing nations to “focus on the football”. It was exactly as tone-deaf and arrogant as you would expect. We all know that Qatar wants to restrict freedom of expression. Now it seems that FIFA wants to follow suit.
So I think the change has to come from the bottom up. If we don’t wake up, we could see more decisions that will literally kill people.
I think players are waking up to the possibility of speaking out on issues like Qatar. Quite a few teammates have asked me about my first article. How do you do it? How did it feel? What was the backlash like? They’re really concerned about these things.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. When the article went out I was in France preparing for a World Cup qualifier the next day. I wasn’t scared, not at all, just curious. I remember walking into the dressing room and having teammates come up to me saying all these nice things about it. The article went around the world for weeks. These huge global media outlets got in touch. It was a bit surreal. I still get people coming up to me wanting to discuss what I said. So yeah, it felt great. I was like, Hey, I must be doing something right.
But there haven’t been many other voices since. None of the big stars got in touch.
And FIFA? Not a peep.
I’d still like more players to speak up. Youngsters who want to just focus on their game, I can understand that to some extent. When Qatar got the World Cup 12 years ago, I was like that too, living in this bubble, oblivious and uninterested in what was happening around me. But I think we can demand more from the experienced players. And yes, there will be some negative feedback. For me it wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. But that’s part of refusing to be a passive bystander. With social media you will always have a small group of people who are very loud, and you have to accept that. Usually, their criticism will have a natural answer.
“Shut up and stick to football.”
That is what FIFA and Qatar want you to do.
“You should respect other cultures.”
True, but when gays and lesbians risk ending up in jail, when women are treated as second-class citizens, it’s not about culture. It’s about universal human rights.
It’s not about culture. It’s about universal human rights.- Tim Sparv
“Why won’t you say something about this or that?”
Well, if I had 48 hours in a day, I probably would.
“Had Finland qualified, would you not have gone to the World Cup?”
Actually, this is where it gets complicated.
Yes, I would have gone to Qatar.
And I don’t expect players to boycott the World Cup.
I know what some might be thinking. I’m a hypocrite, right? And maybe I am. When Riku Riski refused to join us on a training camp in Qatar in 2019, I was surprised … but to be honest, I was also a tad negative. I couldn’t really believe it. How can you say no to your country? I remember thinking, What is he doing? Why would he do that?
That became the trigger for my own education about Qatar, because I knew Riku is a great guy with the right principles. But I also admitted that I couldn’t do what he did.
And now? I still couldn’t.
Honestly, it would have been an incredible honour for me to play for my country in this World Cup.
Finland has always been a huge part of my identity. I’ve played for the national teams since I was 15. I’ve captained every age group. To me it’s the greatest honour you can have. If you make a major tournament, you know you’ll make a huge difference in people’s lives for years. For most of my career we had never reached one. Between 2015 and 2017 we went nearly two years without winning a competitive game. We were losing belief. Some were treating us as a joke.
And then last year we made it to the Euros. The whole country was following us, cheering us on, seeing us achieve something that would be talked about for decades. To call it a dream come true would be an understatement.
That memory means I can die happy.
So we wanted to keep the momentum going. And as a player who was nearing the end of his career, to captain Finland at the World Cup would have been the icing on the cake for me. Nothing would ever have beaten it.
Do you understand where I’m coming from? Do you realise how much the World Cup means? Just keep that in mind when people are screaming, “Why don’t you boycott it? It’s so easy!!”
Yeah … it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy.
That said, you don’t need to boycott the World Cup to have an impact. The best way is to go there and speak up when the world’s eyes are on you. The FIFA letter shows that the critical coverage of Qatar is having an effect. FIFA is rattled. They don’t like this at all.
Some people have asked me why so many are staying silent. As an ex-player, I have some theories.
I think most of them don’t want to rock the boat. When Lise Klaveness, the president of the Norwegian Football Federation, stepped up at the FIFA congress in Doha last March and said what many were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say, that was brave. That’s what we need. We need someone to make people uncomfortable. But being comfortable is nice, you know? I like it too. So it’s hard, I know. Also, say you’re a superstar who has dreamed of playing for a certain club all your life. Should you say no because of what its owners stand for? I think that’s too much to ask of a footballer.
But many players can speak up, and I think more and more are realising that. A few weeks ago the Socceroos made a brilliant video criticising the human rights breaches in Qatar. Well done guys. I can tell you that saying something means a great deal to many people. When I was in Qatar, the woman I mentioned earlier gave me a big hug just for turning up, because being there showed that I cared.
So it makes a difference. Staying silent when you see injustice, that’s just not cool anymore.
This World Cup presents a historic opportunity. For one month players and coaches will be facing the cameras with the world watching. The OneLove campaign with the rainbow armbands is one step on the way, but I’m interested to see what the players will say. There are so many issues: the migrant workers, women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, sportswashing, press freedom … I could go on. So let’s be creative. Let’s convey a message that has an impact. Who is going to step up?
To the players, I’d say: Don’t be a passive bystander when you see where the sport is heading. Your opinion matters. Millions of people are listening to what you say. If you want to say something, there are people who can help you.
If you don’t take this opportunity to speak up, you might come to regret it.
Outside voices are crucial, too. Journalists, politicians, human right experts — we need everyone. Journalists should definitely go to Qatar and shine a light on these issues. That’s their job, and I know they will deliver on that.
Without these voices, do you really think Qatar would have changed anything?
You don’t need to boycott the World Cup to have an impact. The best way is to go there and speak up when the world’s eyes are on you.- Tim Sparv
Fan engagement is so important. We saw how the grassroots movement brought down the Super League. You can protest. You can affect sponsors. This game doesn’t belong to FIFA, but to the fans and the players. Maybe FIFA will finally understand that this World Cup should never have taken place in Qatar.
It will be difficult to be critical all the time. It’s the World Cup. The stadiums, I’ll admit it, they’re amazing. We all just want to enjoy it, right? Let’s buy a beer and a hot dog and head to the game. Let’s lean back on the sofa and turn on the TV. We don’t want to have our morals questioned. That’s simply human nature.
But we owe it to football to do more, especially now, because the way this is going is not sustainable. If we do not demand better from the game’s governing bodies, the people at the top will suck the fun out of football. The backdrop will become so grim that the enjoyment will disappear for everyone.
So for those 90 minutes, yeah, play for your country.
Type up your match report.
Buy that beer.
Enjoy that hot dog.
But before and after the games, let’s write, tweet and speak up. FIFA and Qatar would love it if we stayed silent and focused only on football.
So let’s be louder than ever.
The world deserves to know the full story.