Seven players have been nominated by their unions for the 2023 FIFPRO Merit Awards. FIFPRO will announce the winners of the three different categories – Activism, Impact and Voice – on Thursday 23 November during its annual general assembly in South Africa. One of the nominees is Finnish midfielder Sebastian Strandvall, who has used his voice to raise awareness on issues such as human rights, discrimination, equality, and inclusion.
By Sebastian Strandvall
I recently played my final match for Vaasan Palloseura (VPS). In one of the last home league games, against HJK, I received a special welcome and a tifo tribute by the VPS fans. We won with the last kick of the match. I came on as a late substitute and took the corner kick from which we scored. It was a magical day.
I started my career at VIFK, the other team in Vaasa. Back then I said that I would never play for VPS, as it is the rival team. But in football things happen that you cannot foresee. I ended up playing over 300 games for VPS.
As in life, where you develop as a human being, I also matured as a footballer. When I started, I was only thinking about the matches, but as I got older, I started thinking about issues happening off the pitch as well. It came naturally. At some point, I realised that I have a voice and a platform. I am well-known, mainly in Vaasa, but also in Finland. Some people listen to me when I speak in interviews or on social media.
What I find amazing is how much we as the football community can contribute, especially when we support each other. That's one of the main messages from our player association: that we are stronger when we are together.
It is in my character that I want to help wherever I can and whenever I feel that I can make an impact for people in need. I don't think it's your duty as an athlete to take a stand on all different issues, but if you have the chance and if you feel that it matters to you, then it's a good thing to do.
I spoke out about the status of professional athletes in Finland, as by law we are not considered regular employees. Unlike regular workers, unemployed athletes don’t enjoy financial support that is earnings-related, and our insurance only covers injuries caused by accidents, which has led to players needing to pay huge bills for surgery or recovery.
We want to change the law. With a better support system in place, more young people will dream of becoming a professional athlete. If we can get more kids to dream about that, then we will eventually get more talented players and that will improve our teams, and our national teams.
I talked about this during a radio programme, and I got so many messages from friends and acquaintances, but also people who I didn't know, who would meet me on the street or send me a message on social media, saying: “Oh, I didn't know this about athletes in Finland”.
Things haven’t changed yet, but people are lobbying for improving athletes’ rights, which makes me hopeful that a change is going to come to create better opportunities for the younger generations.
I don't find it difficult to discuss any sort of topic. For me it is easy to talk about racism and equality because my stand is 100 percent clear: I'm opposed to every form of discrimination and racism. Other topics can be more challenging, as I would need to have more information about some of them. The locker room can be a nice forum, where you can talk about a topic and get different views. Many times, I spoke with team-mates before speaking about it publicly.
In 2018, when our team returned from a match abroad, border security stopped and checked all our black players, and none of our white players. Being the captain of our team, I asked why. I wanted to stay with my team-mates, but border security insisted I left.
As I was waiting on the bus with the rest of our team, ignorant about what was going on, I asked my team-mates how they felt about it. To us, it didn’t feel right. When the black players joined us in our bus, they mentioned that they felt discriminated and singled out. I decided to tweet about the behaviour of border security.
It led to big discussions. I, among others, got a call from the border security chief who wanted to know what happened. He initiated an investigation that concluded that border security was wrong. They had to change their protocol to prohibit racial profiling, and their staff received a warning. I was happy with the result. It was not my intention to single out anyone. I wanted to raise the question if we, as a society, think this treatment was okay.
Last year, I was scrolling through Twitter one evening and noticed a message on one of the Iranian accounts that I follow since I played there. I saw a familiar face, my former team-mate Amir Nasr-Azadani. I read that he was sentenced to death.
I was shocked. I could feel my heart beating. I couldn’t just go to sleep. I had to do something. I wrote a tweet and tagged the Finnish player association, JPY. I went to bed. When I woke up, the JPY’s executive director Panu Autio called me, and we discussed our options.
We involved FIFPRO, who came with a statement calling for the removal of Amir’s punishment.
Then, suddenly, so many people started talking about it in the football community, including players with a lot more followers on social media than I have, such as Luis Suarez and Radamel Falcao. It had a huge snowball effect.
I gave a lot of interviews, to BBC, CNN, Sky News, Spanish radio station Cadena SER, and various Finnish newspapers, and radio and TV stations. I can’t count how many interviews I gave, but it was worth it. It was such a small effort for me compared to the dire situation of millions of people in Iran. In January this year, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
I still regularly search for his name on Google or Twitter to see if there is some news about Amir. I hope that he can be free one day, hopefully soon.
Even though this situation affected me, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I'm so privileged. I live in one of the safest countries in the world. And my issues compared to Amir's issue are like nothing, peanuts. This was not about me. This was for Amir.
I hope that players who are interested in more than what happens on the pitch realise that we as a football community have great opportunities to achieve things together. As a community, we are strong. Players should take advantage of our lovely community to help others. One day it might be you who needs this help.