Andrew Warshaw: Qatar’s Belounis case is raising questions and damaging reputation

The plight of journeyman footballer Zahir Belounis and his desperate appeal to be paid what he’s owed and leave Qatar could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for the 2022 World Cup organisers.

Just as the Qataris were proudly unveiling details of the design and construction for the first of their state-of-the-art stadia for the finals in nine years’ time, so all the pomp and backslapping co-incided with yet more adverse publicity about a case which human rights organisations are using as an example of the restrictive kafala employment system that prevents foreign workers leaving the country until being “released” by their sponsors and which has been so roundly condemned.

Until the Belounis case, apart from isolated examples of injustice, football in Qatar had managed to solve its own issues. Yes, there have been spats between employer and employee but nothing on the scale of the scathing new Amnesty International report that highlights systematic abuse of migrant workers, mainly in the construction and service industries.

Footballers, in the main, come to the Gulf state on good money to give their careers a final hoorah and to lift the profile and development of the domestic league. But the tale of woe of Belounis, who has become something of a cause celebre, has changed that perception in terms of image and public relations. French president Francois Hollande has tried to intervene on his behalf as has the international players’ union FIfPro – but so far to no avail.

Yet the more details emerge about the case of one man’s despair at being trapped in a foreign land, the more complex the issue becomes.

Belounis’ situation is being seriously questioned here by the Qatari authorities even though the player himself is on medication for depression and has become so confused and exhausted he can no longer pick up the phone to speak to reporters.

Just to provide the background, the 33-year-old French-Algerian claims he hasn’t been paid since May 2012 and has been reduced to selling all his possessions to support his family. He is suing for compensation, saying he is owed 18 months’ of salary but will not be granted an exit visa until he drops his lawsuit.

The much-travelled Belounis used to be happy in Qatar, having arrived in 2007 from the Swiss third division. Both his daughters were born here and he believes the country “deserves” to stage the World Cup. But, he adds, the employment system is “killing” him and is pleading with his hosts to pay up and let him leave.

With FIFA opting out of the controversy on the basis that Belounis began his legal process in Qatar instead of through their own channels, Belounis went public by writing a letter to two legends of the game, Zinedine Zidane – a former 2022 World Cup ambassador for Qatar – and Pep Guardiola, whose Barcelona club has a shirt deal with Qatar Airways. He urged both of them to intervene on his behalf. “I ask you to use your influence as football ambassadors to talk about what is happening to me and what is happening to many other young men here in Qatar,” he wrote.

Last week Belounis said he had no choice but to go through the painful process of a legal challenge. “I had a great time when I first got to Qatar but now it’s a living nightmare. It’s a disaster. I was told last week that an agreement had been reached. They want me to sign a termination contract but I’m frightened of doing this because I may end up with nothing after fighting for so long.”

Three years ago, Belounis left Qatar, where he had been playing in the second division for the Military Sport Association club, to return to Europe. He agreed to go back the Gulf, however, with the promise of an extended five-year deal when the club was promoted, rebranding itself as a legitimate company under the new name of Al-Jeish in order to comply with Qatar Stars League rules.

At that point, typical of the complexities that envelop Qatari football, Military Sport Association no longer took part in the country’s league structure, becoming a separate entity.

“After one year they stopped my salary,” says Belounis. “They told me they had changed management and that I had to be patient. I went back month after month and they just told me the same thing.”

In the end, in February this year, Belounis couldn’t go on any longer and decided to go to court. “I want a guarantee that if I sign a termination contract, I can get out of the country. I’m sleeping on a mattress, my home is empty, I’ve sold everything. It’s impossible for me to stay now. The club have won and I’m a destroyed man. I just want to see my family in Paris.”

Amid widespread condemnation of Belounis’ treatment, the Qatar Football Association heavily disputes his story, refuting suggestions that the case has tarnished the 2022 World Cup hosts’ image and claiming Belounis has never even played for Al-Jeish.

“He is still being paid every month by the military, I’m 100% sure,” said Saoud Al Mohannadi, general secretary of the Qatari FA. “He has a permanent job in the armed forces. They are his sponsor, not Al-Jeish. Do you think someone would stay in a country for almost two years without any money? We have hundreds of players who come and go. Maybe someone put things in his mind and he realises he made a mistake by going to court.”

The QFA has repeatedly insisted Belounis signed not with Al-Jeish but with the military club which, some might say handily, no longer comes under its direct jurisdiction. In a statement, the QFA said Belounis’ “never signed an employment contract with Al Jeish as a professionaal player”. Even when he went out on loan to in 2011-12 to second division Al Markhiya and claimed outstanding payments from them too, he received “full compensation” with the minimum of fuss.

The QFA’s legal department says it can’t understand why Belounis didn’t make contact – or take his case to FIFA. “The matter of contractual stability is a pillar of the QFA,” one legal official told InsideWorldFootball. “We have had other cases between clubs and foreign players but we can’t intervene if no-one contacts us. The first time we knew about this was through the media.”

The QFA’s somewhat spurious stance has been angrily rejected by Belounis’ family and supporters while the player himself appears to have gone to ground. Last Thursday, when I contacted him ahead of visiting Qatar, he was keen for me to go round to his home and see his plight for myself. But when I arrived in the country he was no longer contactable.

And that’s where we’ve got to. Belounis’ brother Mahdi says the QFA should be ashamed of itself and has been tweeting that the suggestion he was still being paid was a downright lie.

Mahdi claims his brother should have earned €5,000-per-month but that this was cut to €800 and was scrapped altogether last February. To make matters worse, says Mahdi, the player himself owes a fortune in back-rent on his house and has had his car re-possessed.

According to Mahdi, Belounis has gone to ground simply because of exhaustion and depression.

Whoever is being economical with the truth, this whole sorry saga shows that however well-intentioned Qatar’s World Cup officials try to be, at times bending over backwards to be accommodating, a considerable effort is still needed to convince a sceptical world that human rights violations are being properly tackled. Even in football.

Opponents of Qatar, ever since the tiny Gulf state was awarded the World Cup, have often found any excuse to find the biggest stick possible with which to beat the country over the head.

But the fact remains that a lonely footballer has become so desperate and disillusioned he just wants to go home. And that’s a problem for a country that is keen to welcome the world in nine years’ time – whichever way you interpret it.

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1713607967labto1713607967ofdlr1713607967owedi1713607967sni@w1713607967ahsra1713607967w.wer1713607967dna1713607967