CNN

Former Finland captain Tim Sparv has said he hopes this month’s World Cup in Qatar will be a turning point for a sport he says is heading in a “dangerous” direction.

The star, who has turned to activism since retiring, has sharply criticized football’s governing body FIFA for awarding the tournament to Qatar over human rights concerns – including the treatment of migrant workers, its laws on homosexuality and attitudes towards women in society.

FIFA, a $5.6 billion business, has been rocked by decades-long corruption schemes that have sparked a US Department of Justice investigation. It’s a legacy that still hangs 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 line up a joint bid to host the 2030 competition alongside Egypt and Greece, Sparv demanded more from FIFA and would like to see hosting major tournaments “be a reward for doing something good”.

“The World Cup should be an inclusive World Cup,” Sparv told CNN Sport. “Everyone should feel welcome. Everyone should feel safe and that just isn’t the case.

“The trend is dangerous. It’s not a healthy direction we’re headed in and I feel like people in positions of power […] all have a very, very important role to play.

Amid continued criticism of Qatar, FIFA has urged nations participating in the tournament to focus on football and keep politics out of the game.

For Sparv, however, that’s just not an option.

Since hanging up his boots, Sparv has traveled to Qatar with FIFPRO – the global organization representing professional footballers – and said he saw the negative impact the tournament has 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 those critical outside voices to have an opinion and make sure our sport is moving in the right direction.”

Sparv says he also wants Qatar to be a catalyst for the governing bodies to put the players at the forefront of decision-making, to save them from having to choose between their profession, but also potentially taking a stand. politics during the tournament.

He is aware of the changes that FIFA has implemented in recent years, such as the establishment of the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Council – an independent advisory body made up of human and labor rights experts – and is interested to see what impact this will have in the future. .

“I think there has been a shift in our understanding of where the sport is going. Hopefully we will have clearer rules on how we let certain countries bid for World Cups,” he said.

“I think there should be a set of criteria to meet before they are allowed to bid. It is a little too late to demand something from Qatar when it has already obtained it.

“I think the legacy is that each of us; supporters, coaches, players, federations, everyone involved in the sport, are taking a stand to say that this cannot happen again.

Fifa said that it has defined and implemented a human rights policy based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in its official statutes in recent years.

Workers at the Al Bayt stadium construction site on January 9, 2017.

Sparv retired in 2021 and says it took him a while to “wake up” from the football “bubble”.

As a young player, he says he was often blind to the negative forces impacting the game and it wasn’t until fellow Finnish teammate Riku Riski refused to attend a training camp in 2019 that Sparv started. learn about subjects other than football.

He has since written two articles for The Players’ Tribune which described his opposition to the World Cup in Qatar, the latest publication earlier this month.

However, the 35-year-old says he does not approve of player boycotts of such tournaments and admits that if given the chance he would have represented his country at the tournament.

He understands the hypocrisy of such a statement but says it’s an opportunity for players and teams to highlight important issues.

“Playing for a national team means more than just winning football matches,” Sparv said.

“You have a really fantastic opportunity to improve people’s lives, to shine a light on things much more important than winning football matches. Not taking advantage of this opportunity would be a bit of a waste.

While acknowledging that Qatar has made positive changes to its labor laws, Sparv says implementation of these is often poor and he is worried about what will happen when the gaze of the world turns away. inevitably from the 2022 World Cup.

Sparv has decided not to take part in the tournament, which begins on November 20, but says he would reconsider his position if there was an opportunity to do meaningful work.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic change will come and says he’s dedicated 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 we go from here,” he said.

“Media spotlights, journalists, just me personally, nobody from Finland, I’ve done so many interviews on these topics.

“It’s never been the case before, so I think it’s a good direction we’re headed in.”

Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy told CNN Sport that the World Cup will be “an inclusive and safe tournament” and that labor reforms have significantly improved the lives of thousands of workers.

“Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, origin, religion, gender, orientation or nationality,” he 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 defining moment in the history of our region.”

He added: “Like any country, there is always room for improvement. This work will continue long after the World Cup is over, as it is important for us to continue to instill and build on the progress made over the past decade.

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