- Tim Sparv led Finland to their first-ever major championship
- He is also a blogger, newspaper columnist and reading ambassador
- The midfielder speaks to FIFA.com about his past, present and future
“The most important day of my life” is a big title to ascribe. But Tim Sparv does so without hesitation.
The day in question was 15 November 2019, the date on which Finland – the team Sparv captains and has represented for over a decade – qualified for UEFA EURO 2020. It will be the men’s national side first major tournament, and unquestionably represents a huge achievement. But the “most important day” of his life? Really?
“Because Finland had never qualified for a major championship, and because representing my country is such a big part of my identity, I honestly think it will define my football career,” he explained, speaking to FIFA.com. “It’s definitely a night I’ll never forget.
“Finns are known for not showing much emotion and being very serious and stone-faced – people maybe think about Kimi Raikkonen (the Formula 1 driver nicknamed ‘the Iceman’), for example. But that was a night where all that changed and everyone was hugging, kissing and just celebrating like crazy.
“It was a fantastic moment for everyone, and very special for me personally. I’ve been part of the national set-up for 18 years, and some staff members have been there 40 years, so this had been a long time coming for us.”
Of course, having waited nine decades and 32 failed qualifying campaigns for that first major championship, Sparv and his team-mates now need to wait a little longer. COVID-19 saw to that, forcing the EURO’s postponement and delaying by another year the tournament Finns have waited a lifetime for.
“My spontaneous reaction when that happened was definitely major disappointment,” admitted the 33-year-old. “I felt we’d built up some great momentum: we were playing really well, we had confidence from qualifying and we were really looking forward to the tournament.
“But I also see what’s going on in the world, and I know that some things are more important than football. For us, it’s just a case of putting the EURO on ice and focusing on other things for now.”
Sparv knows better than most the dangers of tunnel vision, and the benefits of broadening horizons. As a youngster, football was not only his profession and his passion; it consumed his every waking moment. “It became too much,” he admitted recently. “A whole day could be ruined because of one bad training session.”
Fast forward to today and a dizzying list of outside interests have led to him becoming a reading ambassador, newspaper columnist and blogger, tackling issues ranging from climate change to human rights. Mental health was another recent blog subject, and he sees helping struggling team-mates as a responsibility that comes being captain of Finland and an influential, senior player for Midtjylland.
“I do think that is part of my job and something that, really, all experienced players should be looking to help with. There are huge pressures and expectations on footballers’ shoulders and, for some young players, those can sometimes be too much to carry.
“It’s important to create the right kind of environment – a safe environment – where those young guys can feel free and comfortable to talk about anything they want. I also think it’s clear that, if players feel good away from the pitch, they’ll perform better on it.
“That’s definitely been a strength of the national team because the management there make a big thing of involving the players, hearing our opinions and making sure we all feel happy and invested in what we’re doing. It’s a very democratic set-up, which really benefits us, and I love the responsibility they give me as captain.
“When I was younger, I only thought about football and was only focused on my own success. But I came to a point where I thought, ‘I need something else’. That’s where these outside things – the reading, the studying, the other interests – came from, and I definitely believe they have helped my career, as well as giving my life more meaning.”
Sparv's ability to find fulfilment in a book, or a blog, has allowed him to negotiate the COVID-19 shutdown with a degree of ease and contentment. And besides keeping fit and indulging his other passions, he has begun preparing for life after playing with his first coaching course: the UEFA B Licence.
“I’m conscious of being a little bit older than most of my team-mates and needing to look to the future,” he explained. “Because of the coronavirus, the theory part of the course has been done online, so I’ve been able to make some good progress. It’s been really fun so far.”
Coaching, says Sparv, is “the path I want to go down”. But there is plenty of football to be played first, and who knows? If Finland can pull off a shock or two at the EURO, perhaps a new day will become the most important of his life.