Skip to main content

Zahir Belounis: 'Stranded' footballer back in Paris after Qatar nightmare

By James Masters and Gary Morley, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EST, Thu November 28, 2013
Football player Zahir Belounis (right) is welcomed by his mother as he arrives from Qatar at Paris' Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on November 28, 2013. Football player Zahir Belounis (right) is welcomed by his mother as he arrives from Qatar at Paris' Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on November 28, 2013.
HIDE CAPTION
Family reunion
Stranded in Qatar
Belounis' battle
International rescue?
Qatar World Cup 2022
Construction chaos
World Cup wait
Garcia investigation
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zahir Belounis returns to Paris with his family after finally leaving Qatar
  • Football player arrives in France Thursday along with wife and daughters
  • He is met by his mother, brother and another player with Qatar dispute
  • Belounis says he is "much stronger" but "the fight is not over"

(CNN) -- Having been stuck in Qatar for two years over a pay dispute, soccer player Zahir Belounis is relieved that the nightmare is finally over.

The French-Algerian arrived back in Paris on Thursday with his wife and two daughters after an ordeal that he says left him suffering with depression and contemplating suicide.

"I am so happy. I'm feeling so much stronger," the 33-year-old told CNN as he was met by gathered family, friends and media at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport.

"This is not the end of the fight though. I'm happy to be home and have a normal life again."

Qatar has come under intense media scrutiny since winning the right to stage the 2022 World Cup, particularly over its employment laws -- notably the kafala system, which requires expatriate workers and some visitors to have a residence permit.

Belounis was met at the airport by Abdeslam Ouaddou, another player who found himself in a dispute with a Qatar club and who has taken his case to football's governing body FIFA.

"I am so happy for Zahir to come home but the real victory will be when the kafala system ends," said Ouaddou, a Moroccan who played for several French clubs and England's Fulham before moving to the emirate in 2010.

"If they don't change kafala then they should change where the World Cup is," Ouaddou told CNN.

The Belounis case has prompted the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to demand a change to workers' rights in Qatar.

ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement that Belounis' case has "come to illustrate the conditions faced by 1.3 million migrant workers in Qatar."

"The torment that Zahir and his family have been put through because of bad laws which give workers no rights should never be repeated," she said.

"Sadly, today in Qatar there remain many workers who have no voice. The Qatar authorities should reform their laws to respect International Labor Organization conditions."

FIFPro, the global players' union, is set to visit Qatar this week for talks with the country's football authorities and organizers of the 2022 World Cup.

Neither the Qatari Foreign Ministry nor the Qatari Football Association were available for comment, but in October the QFA told CNN that "as in any other football association in the world, there will unfortunately always be contractual disputes between clubs and players/coaches."

The Kafala law explained

The kafala system ensures that all expatriate workers in Qatar and some visitors require a residence permit.

These can be provided by a resident sponsor, an employer or the person inviting a visitor on his or her sponsorship.

Human Rights Watch says that residence sponsors do not need to justify their failure to provide an exit permit -- the onus is on the expatriate to find another exit sponsor.

They can do this by finding another Qatari national or by claiming a certificate which establishes that there are no outstanding legal claims against them.

It went on to add: "It is also relevant to emphasize that up to now the player has not taken any action in front of the competent judicial bodies of FIFA.

"Our records show also that Zahir Belounis received salaries from one of our other affiliated clubs, Al Markhiya Club, when he played there during the second half of the 2011/12 season.

"At the end of that season, Zahir Belounis contacted the QFA for outstanding salaries from Al Markhiya Club. The QFA immediately took action and, after analysis and investigation which gave him right, the player received full compensation.

"However, in the alleged case of El Jaish Club, Zahir Belounis did not contact QFA, although he had experienced the efficiency of doing so when his request was legitimate."

On Tuesday, FIFA president Sepp Blatter condemned European media for "attacking" and "criticizing" Qatar.

"It is not fair when the international media and especially European media are taking up the focus of an Arab country here in Asia, and attacking, criticizing this country," Blatter said to delegates at the Asian Football Confederation awards in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"We are defending it. We have taken the decision to play a World Cup in the Arab world and we have taken the decision to play in Qatar and we will go and play this ... in 2022 in Qatar," Blatter added.

Earlier this month, he condemned working conditions in Qatar as "unacceptable" following an Amnesty International report which claimed migrant worker abuse was rife.

Qatar accused of exploiting workers
Are Qatar 2022 migrant workers abused?

But for now, at least, the Belounis family can celebrate being home and together again.

Zahir's brother Mahdi, who met him at the airport with their mother, tweeted updates of the situation as he campaigned for his sibling's freedom.

And Zahir's wife Johanna is now looking forward to resuming a normal life.

"We arrived back with just six bags but we have our freedoms," she said.

"I am so happy we will have our lives back. He is so much better now. The girls are happy. We are free."

Read: Belounis - I can't wait to go home

Read: Amnesty International says Qatar rife with migrant worker abuse before World Cup

Read: World Cup hosts Qatar face scrutiny over 'slavery' accusations

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Cultural y Deportivo Leonesa line up in their tuxedo kit.
When celebrating an important anniversary, it's always good to look your best. At least that's theory for a Spanish football team's preseason tuxedo kit.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
While many top European clubs are targeting the U.S. market, French football is setting its sights on expanding into Asia -- with China playing a key role.
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Major League Soccer has snared another big name from England with former Chelsea star Frank Lampard committing his future to New York City FC.
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Europe's top clubs have booked a summer holiday to the U.S. -- but this is business not pleasure as they look to cash in on the World Cup afterglow.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Brazil's new coach Dunga won the World Cup as a player in 1994.
Former World Cup-winning captain Dunga is appointed coach of Brazil's national team for the second time, charged with restoring national pride.
updated 10:20 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Colombia's World Cup star James Rodriguez continues Real Madrid's long tradition of signing "Galacticos."
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Germany's World Cup-winning captain Philipp Lahm has decided to go out at the top by announcing his retirement from international football.
The U.S. government recognizes Kosovo, as do most European states, but getting football's ruling bodies to play ball has proved harder.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
National heroes don't always belong to one country. Ask France's World Cup hero Patrick Vieira, who is rediscovering his roots.
CNN's John Sinnott on the quiet Cambridge graduate behind Liverpool's resurgent campaign.
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
They are the dispossessed -- stateless, and unrecognized by football's ruling body. But these teams will still play at their own World Cup.
Louis van Gaal will be a perfect fit for Manchester United the club, business and brand, says CNN's Patrick Snell.
ADVERTISEMENT