The controversy over the French-Algerian footballer Zahir Belounis overshadowed Qatar’s recent announcement of the timeframe for their first of its World Cup stadia and added fuel to Amnesty International’s corruscating attack on the medieval kafala system.
Belounis, 33, has been stranded in the Gulf nation, together with his wife and two daughters, after being denied an exit visa until he agreed to drop legal proceedings against his former club, Al-Jaish, over a claim of almost two years of unpaid wages.
His case personalised and ‘mediatised’ in a high-profile and illustratively simple way the iniquities of the system of tied employment which had long disturbed the International Trade Union Confederation and other human rights campaigners; the ITUC has described kafala as akin to ‘modern slavery.’
Now his brother Mahdi, who has led a tireless campaign on Zahir’s behalf, has stated that the exit visa has been granted and Belounis is expected back at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris this evening.
Belounis joined Qatari side Al-Jaish in 2007 when the club was a military team in the Qatar second division. He extended his contract, in 2010, until 2015 and was even made a Qatari national to appear in the national team at the Military World Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.
On his return from Brazil, Belounis was sent away on loan, as the club had engaged more overseas players than allowed. The following season Al-Jaish did not even send him on loan, and from November 2011 stopped paying his salary after being promoted into the top division and being transformed into a formal sports club.
In October 2012 Belounis engaged legal help to pursue fulfilment of his contract. The club then put Belounis under pressure to terminate his contract and sign a document confirming he was owed nothing by Al-Jaish. The club told him he could not leave Qatar unless he signed. Belounis refused, concerned that his signature would invalidate any claim.
As his savings from his Qatar years dwindled, so Belounis has been supported financially by friends and family while brother Mahdi pursued an admirably vigorous campaign on his behalf.
The international players’ union, FIFPro, was among other campaigners after having assisted other players who had undergone similar victimisation at the hands of Qatari clubs hiding behind the kafala laws. FIFPro sought consultations with world federation FIFA about the manner in which kafala contravenes international football statutes.
Previously FIFA had refused to become involved in the Belounis issue because the player had preferred to seek a solution in the civil courts rather than approach its own disputes resolution system.