By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A tour to World Cup 2022 host Qatar by the Nordic football associations has forced players to confront both their consciences and their career ambitions, and it is turning out to be a tough choice.
While many players from Sweden, Iceland and Finland jumped at the chance to represent their countries, Finland striker Riku Riski boycotted the trip due to ethical concerns, jeopardising his international ambitions.
The question of how best to protest against the human rights abuses that Qatar is accused of is a complex one, Finland captain Tim Sparv told Reuters.
“Boycotting is one way of doing it, but I don’t believe the people who say it’s the only way,” Sparv said after his arrival back home to Denmark, where he plays for FC Midtjylland.
“It’s not as black and white as people want to make it. We’re all aware of what’s happening in Qatar, we read the articles in the newspapers, but for us the decision to go to Qatar is not that simple,” Sparv said.
“Even though I think it was a really brave move from Riku, it would be very difficult for me to do it.”
Finland beat Sweden 1-0 and lost 2-1 to Estonia in friendlies in Qatar, but the focus was on more than football.
Officials of the Nordic FAs were joined by union representatives to assess the human rights situation in the emirate, which has come in for heavy criticism since it was announced that it would host the World Cup.
The safety, wages and legal status of workers building the arenas in which games are to be played were raised with local organisers.
“It shows that we’re not only there to have a good football camp, but that we’re also taking part in helping, supporting, developing the areas that are not at the level that we want to see,” Sparv said.
“I hope that things will change, I’m an optimist in that way, but I think it’s also naive to think that everybody will not go to Qatar or Dubai or these countries on training camps,” he said.
FIFA and the local organising committee declined to comment on Sparv’s concerns.
The Finns, who have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, won their Nations League group and are on a roll under manager Markku Kanerva who has said players like Riski who boycott events may be in danger of losing their places in the squad.
“It (Riski’s decision) must be respected, (but) I also must emphasise that this camp is very important. It is in these games that players put their foot in the door for the (Euro 2020) qualifiers,” Kanerva said.
Inspired by the performances of Sweden, Denmark and Iceland at the World Cup in Russia, Sparv and his team mates feel their time is coming.
“We’re looking forward to the next few years, because we feel we can do something that has never been done before in the men’s national team,” he said.
Now 31, time is running out for Sparv and he knows his last chance to play for Finland at the World Cup will most likely be in 2022.
A social media post explaining his decision to take part in the trip attracted praise and criticism from fans at home and abroad, but the midfielder will continue to put his case forward.
“Boycotting is one way of doing it, but we need a middle way, otherwise we will not be able to influence these countries in the way we want,” he said.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)