Much of the time spent talking to Saints academy graduate Tim Sparv revolves around topics of relative doom and gloom. 

Whether it’s Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the World Cup in Qatar, player power - and sometimes the lack of it -  Sparv makes sure to focus on issues that some prefer to ignore. 

But it’s not just words with the 35-year-old. Sparv has been housing a family of Ukrainian refugees in his hometown of Vaasa, Finland, while less than a week after our conversation he travelled to Qatar in order to speak with migrant workers about the issues they face ahead of this winter’s World Cup.

For someone who fights so hard for a better footballing future, how does the state of the modern game make the former Finland captain feel? With a sigh and a pause, Sparv starts to explain.

“You get disappointed, of course. I still love football but there is definitely room for improvement.” 

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A few moments later, a big smile creeps onto his face as he continues. “There are so many good things about football. I have a Ukrainian family living in my apartment in Vaasa. The boy is eight years old and I took him to his first football training last Saturday. You could see he wasn’t as good as some of the others but that’s not important. The important thing is that he was smiling, he was enjoying himself. 

Daily Echo: Sparv in action against Southampton in the 2015 Europa League. Image by: PASparv in action against Southampton in the 2015 Europa League. Image by: PA

“He doesn’t speak the language but he was just happy to be part of a group. And coming from Ukraine, coming from the Kyiv area, he’s had a really long trip, a traumatic experience; I can’t even imagine how he feels. But for that one and a half hours playing football in a team he was really happy. 

“That for me is what football is: Grassroots. All these coaches in this team, all the parents helping make him feel part of it. That makes my heart beat. With this solidarity and empathy for other people, football can have a really big impact in our society.”

The truth is, a conversation with Tim Sparv is not spent in doom and gloom - nowhere near it. In reality, it’s a conversation full of light and hope as problems that seem insurmountable start to feel refreshingly conquerable.

“Sometimes you have that feeling of helplessness,” Sparv admits. “I had it when the war started. You just felt so empty at home watching the news: What can I do as an individual? And the same thing with some of the questions concerning Qatar - you want to create some kind of tangible change and I have that feeling a lot. I’m thinking about what I can do, who I can team up with, what kind of message I want to get across, so I can relate to that kind of feeling. 

“I understand from an individual perspective it’s difficult to go up against these institutions that are just so massive, have a long history, have political power and a lot of money. You can feel a little bit lonely. But there’s a lot of good stuff happening at grassroots level. There are so many good organisations out there that are focused on human rights issues for example. So getting in contact with them, volunteering, asking them how you can give concrete help; I think that’s a good place to start.”

It’s been a busy week for Sparv. Largely based in Prague, Czech Republic, he has been back in Finland touring schools as part of a book club project encouraging kids to read. The day before we chat, he travelled 600km to the south of the country and just prior to our call he was much closer to home, at his old school in Vassa, on the West coast of Finland.

“It’s been really really fun and meaningful because these are things I didn’t really have the chance to do when I was playing. I have the time now to give a bit of myself to these kids who look up to me and us.”

Sparv wasn’t always a big reader himself. Up until the age of about 25, he was obsessed with football and only football. Sparv would go to training and games before returning home to “sit on the couch and watch more football.”

Sparv’s obession with football can be summed up by his move to Southampton at the age of 16 in 2003. Looking back, it feels pretty bold. But at the time, it was barely even a decision.

“I was so young and naive back then so for me it didn’t feel brave at all,” he says. “When I got the opportunity to go to Southampton I was in no doubt. I loved English football, I got a great first impression when I went on trial. Football was my life, I was very dedicated and focused and wanted to give myself the best opportunity to make it as a footballer and I felt like Southampton was the right environment for me. So it didn’t feel brave at all but it was a big step for my mom I think.

“I definitely don’t regret going to Southampton. Just going away from your comfort zone, going to a different country, learning a language, trying to make it in an environment that’s tough, where everybody wants to develop and make it in professional football. It made me tougher. I think that was the place where I became grown up, became an adult.”

Sparv says he “was never good enough to make it to the first team or play in the Premier League” and after helping his team reach the FA Youth Cup Final in 2005 alongside Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana and Gareth Bale, he left the academy for Swedish side Halmstad in 2007.

Daily Echo: Teenage Sparv playing for Southampton. Image by: PATeenage Sparv playing for Southampton. Image by: PA

Sparv doesn’t have an official Southampton appearance on his CV but he went on to play more than 350 games in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark and Finland. In 2015, he was named captain of his country's national team, a role he continued in until his retirement in 2021.

In 2019, ahead of a Finland training camp in Qatar, Sparv was treated to an awakening lesson when club teammate Riku Riski refused to attend - citing ethical grounds. Riski’s captain, who prides himself on always learning, felt it was his duty to look further into such a big decision.

“That was the trigger for me to think ‘ok now we have to focus on this and do something,” Sparv says. “We are part of something that is not compatible with our values. I got in touch with FIFPRO, the players union, they’ve been a great source of support. They share their knowledge of what is happening on the ground which is crucial because I don’t know everything. 

“I got involved and it wasn’t just a couple of times, it’s been ever since. It’s been part of my life these last couple years and for me it’s not optimal that we have the Olympic Games in China, the World Cup in Qatar. These countries with poor human rights records are given major tournaments as some kind of gift or prize, I don’t think that’s a good thing. We need to have a system where we reward countries who are respectful towards human rights because I don’t think it’s right what we’re doing.”

Understated yet full of passion, Sparv is no doubt a trailblazer, armed with the same natural bravery that took him to Southampton almost two decades ago. But he’s hoping to lose that tag and just become part of the norm as athlete activism develops.

“Athletes are doing amazing things on the pitch which is inspiring to people. But they can do even more if they would talk about…anything that is close to their heart, anything they are passionate about. It’s great to see how active some athletes are. I still feel we’re just getting started, it’s still a very small portion of athletes who are actually using their voice for bigger topics in society but I think we’re getting there and it’s really nice to see because they have millions of followers and they have the chance to positively influence peoples’ lives. And I really think they should take it. 

“I tried to use my voice when I was playing, I’ll continue to try and use my voice, but I’m ‘just’ a Finnish footballer. There are plenty of footballers with an even bigger platform to speak from. I would encourage anyone to do that.

Daily Echo: Tim Sparv pictured in 2009. Image by: PATim Sparv pictured in 2009. Image by: PA

“I don’t want to pressure anyone to do something they are not comfortable doing. For me, it took some time to get to a place where I felt comfortable talking about issues that were maybe not football-related. Every time you have an opinion there will be negative feedback. But the majority of feedback I’ve been getting is really positive. So yes, maybe there will be some backlash at times. But there was very little, to be honest. And I was just focused on the majority that think we’re doing good.”

Sparv is a dreamer but he's not naive. There’s one massive elephant seemingly in the corner of nearly every football room and it’s perhaps the toughest thing to combat: money.

“I think maybe it’s the beginning of the end in a way - I like to be optimistic and hope that,” Sparv says. “But we still have that culture where money gets you power, money gets you a seat at the table, money influences things, influences people. That’s not right. Especially if you’re one of the leading people at a big club you need to think about not only the financial side, you need to think about the sponsors you attract if they have the values you want to connect to your club. You need to think about that before you look at the money. I hope it’s changing. I hope that when you look for owners or sponsors you don’t only look at the bottom line but you look at what they stand for instead.

“I’m definitely not an expert but I think we need to get everybody at the table. In some institutions it’s like this little elite that decides what is going to happen. We need people from different parts of society, we need experts in human rights issues, we need supporters, we need players, we need coaches, we need people not from the football world. Getting these different perspectives helps us make better decisions. I think there needs to be a clash of opinions to get to the best results.”

Sparv is a beacon of optimism in a world where the realities are sometimes tough to face. The World Cup is happening in Qatar. The wealthiest people and wealthiest clubs do still control the football world. Fans are still not being listened to by those in charge.

But Sparv is used to being the underdog. In 2020 he captained his country to their first ever major tournament and although they won't be in Qatar, Finland's triumph to reach the Euros last summer is full of lessons in achieving the unlikely.

So what can we do?

“Keep the pressure on!” Sparv answers emphatically. “What will happen when the spotlight is not on Qatar? Because there has actually been some positive change, believe it or not. It’s not close to being great or anything but there has been some positive change since they got the World Cup due to the pressure from different parts of the world, pressure from individuals, pressure from organisations. 

“But what will happen after the World Cup? What will happen when everybody’s left? Will they go back to what they were or can they keep the momentum going? What is our legacy? Have we done something to change people’s lives? I hope so but I definitely have my doubts. Keep the pressure on.”

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