It's another interview on ETS, with a player who has taken a step into the (virtual) unknown. Former VPS captain Sebastian Strandvall, now of Rah Ahan in the Persian Gulf Pro League (Iran's top division), has taken time out to give some incredibe insight into life as a footballer, and as a person, in a very unique part of the world.
How are you finding Iranian football? How did you end up in Iran?
Iranian football is all about passion and heart. That's the first thing that comes to my head. Perhaps not necessarily the same type of passion and energy as the lower British leagues. The passion here also includes doing beautiful and technical things. Otherwise comparing to Veikkausliiga, the tempo is very very high, at least at its best. You have little time on the ball and the technique and physique of the players is also good. What the Iranians lack the most is tactical knowledge. They clearly don't get the same tactical schooling as most European players get at a quite young age. This often leads to poor decision making, especially in attacking play. If you mess up a three v one counter attack in Europe, most likely you get slaughtered. But here that happens all the time and no one seems to care too much. Anyway, the Persian Gulf Pro League is a very good league compared to many European leagues. When you consider that Iran has around 80 million inhabitants and an absolutely huge interest in football, it's quite logical.
I ended up here as a result of great agent work. Our plan was to find a good club in Central Europe, after having a good spring in Austria last year. But the small, yet badly timed ankle injury I suffered just before the end of the season, made us change our plans. We had some really good things going on but they fell apart when I wasn't 100% fit to play in the month of June. After none of these good offers in Europe succeeded, we slowly turned our focus to this side of the world. My agent is half German, half Iranian, so he had some contacts here. Then, after seeing me on videos, Rah Ahan's new owner really wanted me here and he even flew to Munich to meet with my agent. This gave me the signal that the club really wants me and also the plans for the club seemed interesting. In the end, things moved very quickly.
Seba in action in Iran
The culture in Iran is vastly different to Finland – what are the strangest customs you’ve encountered?
Of course there is the fact that you can't dress exactly the way you want, which is weird for us Europeans. But otherwise to be honest, I haven't experienced too many strange things at all. It can be very confusing though, with the Persian peoples politeness. There is a thing called "taroof" in Iran which basically means that you offer your help to anyone you meet, but with no intention of actually providing help... The person that is offered help is expected to decline several times. If you don't know that it's a matter of "taroof", you might think that you are actually going to get help or a favour from the person offering. Essentially, you get offered help but you don't actually get it. It's just a Persian cultural thing to always act politely. The most "dramatic" thing must have been when sheep have been sacrificed... A couple times at the training center and a couple times outside the hotel on the morning of a game, sheep have been sacrificed in order to keep bad spirits away...
Is it true that local women aren’t allowed to attend games? Does that make the atmosphere obviously different?
It is true yes. I think this will change in the future, as foreign women are already allowed in the stadiums. I'm sure that it will change at some point but it's very difficult to guess when it will happen. I wouldn't say the atmosphere is obviously different, but of course it would be nice if everyone who wants to could come and watch the games.
With Hans Backe now in charge of the Finnish national team, are you hoping to get back into the squad?
The Finnish national team has always been important to me, it will be my goal to be part of the squad for as long as I play at a professional level. The biggest reason I wanted to play outside Finland was that I felt I needed to play in a tougher league in order to claim a regular spot in the national team. Now when I play here, I feel like I'm better prepared to play international games, if the call-up would come. My head is already set to a quicker and more technical level of football, with little time on the ball. So yes, I'm hoping that I will get a chance with Hans Backe and I'm also confident I will get my chance at some point if I continue playing well here. There are quite a few international friendlies scheduled before the World Cup qualifiers start, so I'm sure I will be given a chance to take a spot on the team.
Photo via YLE
Your old club VPS had a slow start to 2015 but recovered well – how easy is it to follow their progress from abroad?
Yes they had a really bad season, close to catastrophic but luckily they managed to stay in the league. It doesn't really matter if you have a bad season, as long as you learn from your mistakes and try not to make them again. I follow their progress as best as I can. The Internet is very slow in Iran but it still gives me a chance to follow the progress. I read updates on different sites and also I'm still in touch with both players and staff of the teams. With the new stadium in Vaasa coming, I really hope the club will try to step it up once again and achieve a lot of success in the future.
How do you think Veikkausliiga football compares to that in Iran or Austria?
The biggest difference is in tempo. In the Austrian Erste Liga, the quality was not the best but it was a very physical style of play with quick attacks and a lot of running up and down. It was developing in the sense that I improved my ability to win duels and tackles. Also I learned how to think faster, since you really had to do that, otherwise you would get tackled for sure. Erste Liga compares to the lower English divisons, while Austrian Bundesliga also is physical, but a lot more technique and composed tactical playing. Not so much up and down all the time. I would really have liked to play in that league, since I feel it would be a really suitable league for me, and also for other typical Finnish players. In Iran the tempo is again a little higher, at least against the better teams in the league. Technical and fast guys with incredible passion and will. The Iranians have a lot to learn tactically, but for now they compromise the lack of tactical knowledge with passion and spirit. In Finland we need to develop and try to make the tempo of the games a lot higher, then we can get closer to other leagues.
Has your move abroad broadened your horizons? Would you encourage young Finns to travel away from the traditionally big leagues?
Absolutely. You need to know that the league you are about to go to is not completely shit, so to speak... But the leagues in both East and West are constantly improving. The NASL in North America for example, I would guess that's a league that is constantly getting better now since the MLS is also doing so well. Also in the East with leagues like China signing big names. Therefore I can imagine that other leagues in Asia are also going to improve. I honestly think that you don't have much to lose. A footballing career is short but if you don't like a place, I'm certain that no one will force you to stay. So if you get an opportunity, I definitely think you should try.
Photo via Veikkausliiga
What is the biggest thing you miss about Finland?
The people. My fiancé, my family and my friends. I can live without all the other lovely things that Finland offers for some time, like sauna and rye bread. I can enjoy those things when I come back. But the people I miss for sure, especially my fiancé, even though she has visited me for a total of almost two months over here.
Which player did you grow up idolising? And is there a player in the world you enjoy watching most?
Eric Cantona and David Beckham. But also of course Jari Litmanen. After 1994, Tomas Brolin from Sweden. Schweinsteiger is a favourite at the moment. But I also try to watch other players who play in my position, especially Modric, Rakitic and Thomas Müller.
Your brother Matias is a world champion skier – were you ever keen to get into winter sports?
I actually used to compete in cross country skiing myself. It kind of goes in the family... Our parents allowed us to try every sport we wanted to. I was pretty good at skiing and I have a lot of medals from when I was young. But around the ages of 14-15, when the other boys started to train harder and get better, I fell behind and quit, because I never really liked the training. I just competed. But the technique is still there and nowadays I enjoy going for a ski when I have the time. Anyway, my number one winter sport was ice hockey. I used to play until I was 16-17 and I was pretty good at that too. At first I considered quitting football and going all in with the hockey, but I changed my mind after some coaches told me I would make the youth national team in football if I'd just quit ice hockey. My first call-up to a national team didn't happen until the age of 21, but I am still very happy with my choice.
My thanks again to Sebastian for a superb set of answers, this already ranks very high on my list of favourites!
As always, any suggestions for future interviews or help in contacting interesting people, let me know on the usual channels...