Members of an online book club in Finland were left disappointed when their leader postponed a few sessions in June. He has a good excuse, though – he’s captaining his country at the European Championship.
Alongside reading the play from midfield, Tim Sparv runs a regular book society alongside Swedish-Finnish publishing company Forlaget, which hopes to inspire young children to pick up more literature in this digital age.
‘In Finland, and probably in England as well, you have a big challenge to get young people to read more,’ Sparv tells Sportsmail. ‘Young boys are reading less and less and it affects performance in school and in life generally, and they fall behind.’
Finland captain Tim Sparv has opened up to Sportsmail about his country’s hopes at Euro 2020
The 34-year-old will lead out his side at their first ever major tournament later this summer
Yet it’s Finland’s rise as a footballing nation that seems to belong in fiction. The last European Championship took place in 2016, when the country failed to win a single match all calendar year.
A run of just one win in 19 international games between October 2015 and June 2017 saw Finland slip to 110th in the world rankings – below Mauritania, Palestine and Suriname. Four years later and they are playing in their first major international tournament and the country has fallen back in love with football.
Looking back at that dismal period, their 34-year-old captain recalls: ‘I don’t want to use the word “crisis” but I think we had a period where we didn’t know where we were going.
‘We had some awful results for a long time and people were questioning whether we were ever going to qualify for a tournament. For a time we were a joke in Finnish society and I don’t think it was a nice feeling being a fan of the national team.
Sparv’s Finland won just won game between 2015 and 2017 but have endured a meteoric rise
‘The last few years have been exceptional, not only results-wise but also our playing style has improved. A big credit goes to our loyal fans who stood by us during these horrendous times because it really was awful. Seeing perspective back then would have been difficult.’
The Finns breezed through their Euro 2020 qualification with ease, in a tricky group alongside Roberto Mancini’s impeccable Italy side, Euro 2004 winners Greece and 2014 World Cup competitors Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Qualifying with a game to spare in November 2019 via a 3-0 victory over Liechtenstein was a historic moment for the country. Not even Finland’s all-time greats Jari Litmanen, Mikael Forssell and Sami Hyypia managed to guide their side to a major tournament – but this group of players did.
A group which Sparv accepts is not 100 per cent ‘typical Finnish’. Players helping them on the way had surnames such as Kamara, O’Shaugnessy, Jensen and Taylor, but Finland’s captain insists his national team epitomises modern society and that diversity makes them better.
Sparv (bottom row, far left) praised the special diversity in this Finland national team
‘I do believe it helps having that kind of diversity and different backgrounds, different experiences,’ Sparv claims. ‘If you can use that and create that kind of atmosphere then it will be beneficial for everyone and for the team.
‘I have lived more of half my life abroad and one of the positive sides of football is you can experience different cultures and countries. Everyone brings something to the table and it’s mirroring society in a way.’
It was this togetherness that caused Sparv and other Finland players to come out in support of team-mate Glen Kamara when he was allegedly abused by Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela while playing for Rangers in the Europa League.
Sparv publicly tweeted his backing for his international team-mate, but it led to even more abuse targeted at the Finland captain himself, who is in a relationship with Miss Czech Republic 2011 Jitka Novackova.
Sparv defended Finland team-mate Glen Kamara earlier this year after he suffered racial abuse
Speaking about the Kamara incident, Sparv says: ‘He’s my team-mate and I trust him – and racism is a big problem in society and in football. You just get the sense that this problem is never going away.
‘I’ve never felt so much abuse after my public support for Glen on social media -which tells me that it’s still a big problem today. It was mainly from Czech people and Slavia Prague supporters who had a different opinion, to put it diplomatically.
‘It was all over my Twitter and Instagram and it was quite a lot. I expected it in a way, I also have a girlfriend from Czech Republic so it could have something to do with that as well. I still felt it was important that we stood up for our team-mate.’
The lengths Sparv and Finland’s leadership team have gone to creating a strong national team atmosphere is a reason why they will appear at this summer’s European Championships.
Sparv (left) praised the togetherness of this special group of players who will pay at Euro 2020
Even the great Jari Litmanen was unable to inspire Finland to a major tournament
In between training sessions, the Finland players take part in frisbee, foot golf and team quizzes in order to raise morale. But their secret weapon in qualifying?
Sparv reveals: ‘Every time we’re in Finland, we’re always staying at the same very beautiful and picturesque hotel. The whole team always goes in the sauna during the evening when the day is finished.
‘We just relax, talking bulls***, laughing, joking, sweating and you sleep fantastic afterwards. The sauna for us is our mental breathing space.’
SPARV’S FIVE FINLAND PLAYERS TO WATCH
Teemu Pukki – Striker
Club: Norwich City
Caps: 91 – Goals: 30
TS: ‘It always helps having a goalscorer like him for the team. He’s been phenomenal.’
Glen Kamara – Central Midfielder
Caps: 27 – Goals: 1
TS: ‘You can put a really s****y pass into him and he will deal with it, protect it and he will give it to someone else. He builds our team.’
Robin Lod – Attacking Midfielder
Club: Minnesota United
Caps: 42 – Goals: 4
TS: ‘He’s an offensive, attacking midfielder who can play right or up front. He plays in the MLS at the moment. He’s got a fantastic technical ability and is a big part of our offensive game.’
Lukas Hradecky – Goalkeeper
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Caps: 65 – Clean sheets: 25
TS: ‘He’s also part of the captain’s group. He’s a very funny personality, fantastic character and good goalkeeper and shot stopper. He’s very comfortable with his feet and a calming presence in goal.’
Marcus Forss – Striker
Caps: 5 – Goals: 1
TS: ‘He has that goalscoring ability. He’s very direct – in a way he’s a bit like Pukki. He made a real difference when he came in, scored a goal in his first game against France. He has a bright future ahead of him.’
The coaches play their part in this feel-good atmosphere too. The mastermind behind Finland’s qualification is former school teacher Markku ‘Rive’ Kanerva, who has created his own ‘Rivelution’ as national team coach.
‘Kanerva and his coaching staff, they compliment each other really well,’ Sparv claims. ‘They created an atmosphere and environment where everybody’s comfortable.
‘Some of the backroom staff have been in this team for 30 to 35 years which is exceptional. It feels like coming home to your family when you go for the national team break.
‘It creates an atmosphere where everyone wants to be. The players they will come and go but these people are so crucial to the national team’s DNA and identity. They create that environment. This success that we’ve had, it makes me so happy on their behalf because they waited for this for so so long.’
The coaches even bring laughs across the dressing room by bringing out musical instruments at dinner table and playing traditional Finnish music.
‘There’s definitely no Beyonce or Jay-Z there,’ Sparv laughs. ‘It’s all very traditional Finnish pop or rock music. Maybe some old school international music but it’s definitely more 70s, 80s – stuff when they were young.’
Not many fans across Europe will have heard of Finland’s modern-day superstars, though a Finnish presence across the top leagues is growing.
Lukas Hradecky was named Bundesliga’s Goalkeeper of the Season while at Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018, while Finland will have two Premier League strikers in Norwich’s Teemu Pukki and Brentford’s Marcus Forss next season.
So what will we expect to see of Finland by the time they take on Group B opponents Belgium, Russia and Denmark this summer?
‘In some ways we’re a typical Nordic side where we’re very humble and work hard for each other,’ Sparv reveals. ‘Defensively, we’re tough, aggressive and pragmatic.
‘We’re a very humble bunch of players, there’s no ego – nothing like that. We’re just very well aware of how we want to win football games.
‘On the other side there’s some very technically gifted footballers in our squad. This is a new generation of Finnish footballers coming through which has made our offensive game come along really well. We’re very comfortable with the ball, we don’t mind being in possession.’
Sparv’s personal journey to the European Championship began in the Finnish farming village of Oravais, with a population of around 1,500 people.
His family are sports fanatics: his mother was a hurdler, while his father coached him and his younger brother Glenn at amateur football level. Glenn was close to joining Tim on the football scene but struggled with knee injuries – though has now become a professional MMA fighter in Thailand, nicknamed Glenn ‘The Teddy Bear’ Sparv.
‘It was a very good surrounding for me, I’m more of a nature type of person,’ says Sparv, remembering his home village. ‘For us, sports generally was a way of life. It was everything from football, athletics, floorball. It could be anything, it was good for young kids to be fair.’
Sparv grew up in the farming village of Oravais in Finland, which has a population of just 1,500
Sparv rose up through the Finnish football ranks and was spotted by Southampton scouts at youth international level. He was handpicked for a trial and was placed in the famed Saints academy where he grew up with some of Europe’s biggest stars.
He played in the Southampton youth side that reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2005 – alongside Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana. Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick and 2016 top-flight champion Nathan Dyer were also part of that side.
‘It was an exceptional group,’ he remembers. ‘It was a really good environment. You could see some of the guys were big, big talents from the start.
‘Everyone knew Theo Walcott was going to make it. He had that raw speed, he could take players on. Every youth season he had 20 goals and 20 assists. It was obvious he was going to be a big star.
Sparv’s rise through the Finland youth ranks earned him a move to Southampton in 2003
The Finn was part of the same youth team as Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale at the Saints
‘Adam Lallana had some heart problems but he was a very atypical English player back then. He could turn you inside out with his first touch. A hard worker in his games, he was always one who ran the most.
‘Gareth Bale would be one of the top runners when we went to the forest for the conditional workout. He had a great left foot and sometimes you would see him training his free-kicks. Nine times out of 10 the ball would go where he wanted it to go.
‘He had a professional attitude, maybe a bit shyer than the rest but he was very humble and friendly to everyone.’
Despite enjoying his time at the south coast, including the ‘wild nights’ where the youth prodigies would sneak out of the academy lodgings to party in the city centre, Sparv was wise enough at that age to realise he would not make it at Southampton.
He quit the Saints in 2007 – aged 19 and without a first-team appearance to his name – and joined Swedish side Halmstad, before a three-year spell at Dutch side Groningen from 2010. A subsequent move to German second division side Greuther Furth would make everyone realise that his Premier League quality remained.
Data analysts at Danish club FC Midtjylland noticed that the German side, with Sparv as their most important player, were playing elite-level football irrespective of their stature. As part of the statistical recruitment phenomenon that is slowly spreading across football, the Danish side made Sparv a priority signing in 2014.
Midtjylland, run by Brentford fan and owner Matthew Benham, won the Danish SuperLiga in their first season with the Finland captain in their ranks and have added two more titles since then. All because of their unique recruitment system based on the ‘Expected Goals’ philosophy, which showed Sparv was a big reason why teams win games.
Sparv would go on to win three Danish league titles at FC Midtjylland between 2014 and 2020
‘I was surprised when I heard the reason they signed me,’ Sparv remembers. ‘I was not into statistics back then. I’m not the kind of sexy player that will get you 10 goals and 10 assists, nor the player that will take people on and dribble.’
SPARV’S INFLUENCE AT FINLAND SINCE 2017
Finland when Sparv starts:
Finland when Sparv does not start:
The same theory can be applied to Sparv’s influence on the Finland team. Trends show that when the 34-year-old AE Larissa player is on the pitch, his national side win. When he’s missing, they don’t.
This influence was summarised when Finland took on Wales in the Nations League last September. Sparv played 76 minutes with the Finland very much in the game at 0-0. Four minutes after the midfielder was substituted, Kieffer Moore put Wales in front.
Sparv was made aware of his personal statistic by a broadcasting company recently: ‘They could see when I was on the pitch, we had better chance of getting points and winning games, and when I was out – we were losing.
‘I would never put this down to the idea of just because I play, we win. I’m not that kind of guy but I hope my presence on the pitch makes a difference. And being the captain of the team and one of the leaders, I think you need to have those personalities in the team.
‘It feels good, because you are in a position when you know you are valued but I was a little bit surprised when it was said that in last three, four years we were getting a lot more points when I’m in the side.’
So should Sparv be fully fit for all of Finland’s European Championships campaign, how far does he think they will go?
‘England against Finland, Wembley final – the big time,’ he jokes. ‘We have a really tough group. We will do everything we can. We have a fantastic team spirit, the best I’ve had in my career so we’re going to go there and enjoy and and keep our ambitions.
Data statistics show that Finland tend to win while their captain Sparv (right) is on the pitch
Sparv says Finland will aim to get out of their Euros group with Belgium, Denmark and Russia
‘We are a very hungry bunch of players, eager to prove ourselves on the highest level. I think we have a dream of getting through the group stage.
‘Is it naive? Perhaps, because it’s our first time. But I would like to see a team that everybody can be proud of that resembles the team that got us here. Hopefully you will see a very tight-knit group on and off the pitch, a very hard hard-working one and hopefully we can surprise you.
‘When you think of Finland, you might think of something else other than football. This is our chance to enlighten some people.’