Zahir Belounis’ “nightmare” of being unable to leave Qatar for several months may be over, but the former French footballer said he faces an uncertain future as he tries to get his life back on track in Paris.
Unable to secure an exit visa since February amid a contract dispute with his club, Belounis received his long-awaited travel documents last week that enabled him to board a flight back to France with his family.
He was greeted at Charles de Gaulle Airport with an embrace from his mother and an onslaught of interview requests from journalists who kept him in the headlines for several days.
As that media attention fades, Belounis – who described his mental state as “still very bad” – told Doha News that his only plans for the coming days are to get some rest.
He added that he plans to stay in Paris and find work, although he’s unsure what field he will pursue.
The former professional athlete said that his football career is over, because he is convinced that no club would be interested in a 33-year-old who hasn’t played in a year. Belounis said blames the end of his career not on Qatar, but on a small number of individuals at a football club here who abused the country’s sponsorship, or kafala, system.
‘You have your exit visa’
Belounis had believed he was days away from receiving an exit visa for roughly a month, and sold his furniture in preparation for his departure.
Last Wednesday, he received a long-awaited phone call from the French embassy, telling him his travel paperwork had been approved and that he should leave the country within 24 hours.
“They said, ‘You have your exit visa. And tomorrow you can leave,’” he told Doha News in an interview from France on Thursday.
The drawn-out ordeal appears to have taken a psychological toll on Belounis, reportedly pushing suicidal thoughts into his mind. He said he believed concerns about his mental health is what prompted embassy officials to encourage him to fly out of Qatar so quickly.
The news that he could leave prompted a whirlwind of packing and other preparations, such as picking up his eldest daughter from school and informing administrators that she would not be returning, before heading to the airport.
He conceded that he felt apprehensive when he approached the immigration counter with his wife and two children.
“Of course you have doubts – perhaps my exit visa is not registered,” he said.
But Belounis passed through the checkpoint without incident and was soon aboard a plane headed to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where he was warmly received.
People waiting 😉 pic.twitter.com/JIGXis9xqX
— The Frenchies (@2frenchiesblog) November 28, 2013
Belounis said he still doesn’t know what changed in Qatar that finally enabled him to leave. He added that he has not dropped his lawsuit against his former sponsor, the Military Sports Association, and its division one team, the al Jaish Football Club.
Belounis declined to say how much money he is seeking, but media reports quote his lawyer as saying the amount covers the €120,000 to €150,000 (QR594,400 to QR743,000) that the athlete is apparently owed for the remaining years of his contract.
In 2010, Belounis signed a five-year deal to play with Al Jaish and was transferred to Al Markhiya in the second half of 2011. He said he soon stopped being paid, prompting him to launch a lawsuit against Al Jaish in February of this year. In apparent retaliation, he added that his sponsor said he would be denied an exit visa until he dropped his case.
The ruling Emir’s brother, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairs the al Jaish football club. However, Belounis said that contrary to media reports, he’s never made any public claims against the Emir’s brother.
Instead, he said that all of his frustrations are with “two or three people” within the club who mistreated him.
“I don’t have a problem with anyone else,” he said, adding he had “received a lot of support from Qatari people,” including several who put Belounis and his family up in a hotel while he was awaiting his exit visa. He also said the Qatari government worked with French embassy officials to resolve the matter.
Belounis emphasized that what happened to him was perpetrated by the football club and did not reflect the entire country:
“I spent a really good time in Doha. My two daughters were born there … My life was very nice until the club (mistreated me) and stopped my salary without reason.”
Reflections on Qatar
The country’s labor laws and its sponsorship, or kafala, system has come under fire in recent years from several human rights and union organizations, some of which have invoked Belounis’ name in an effort to pressure government officials to introduce reforms.
Earlier this week, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said during a Doha press conference that “Zahir is the representative of the powerlessness of 1.3 million workers” amid calls for FIFA to “rerun the vote” that awarded Qatar the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.
However, Belounis distanced himself from those arguments in comments to Doha News:
“Qatar deserves the World Cup. The club abused the kafala system … I was not lucky. But I hope all the best to Qatar.”