CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE in DOHA: The mysterious case of Zahir Belounis, the French-Algerian player trapped in Qatar, has deepened with the local football authorities’ version of events being rejected angrily by his family and supporters . . . and the man at the heart of it all vanishing from sight.
Belounis claims he has been unable to obtain an exit visa from the Gulf state because he refuses to drop a legal pursuit of unpaid wages; the Qatar Football Association claims he is being paid but has not registered a complaint with either it or world federation FIFA.
The Belounis case has received far more publicity outside Qatar than within the Gulf state. This is partly because it feeds into human rights and international labour union concerns over the kafala system described as ‘modern-age slavery.’
Until the Belounis case emerged kafala was considering a concern for only immigrant workers in the construction industry. Now other foreign footballers, such as Abdesslam Ouaddou, are complaining that it was used as a weapon against them as well.
Belounis joined Qatari side Al-Jaish in 2007. He maintains that the club extended his contract until June 2015 but, from November 2011, stopped paying his salary and tried to force him not only into agreeing a contract termination but to sign a document confirming he was owed nothing.
The player, originally from Val de Marne in France, refused. He feared that should he sign he would not receive anything. Under kafala, migrant workers are tied to their “sponsors” and cannot leave the Gulf state unless the employer agrees. Thus Belounis has been stranded in Doha with his wife and two daughters.
Pleas for help on his behalf have been issued to FIFA, to the Qatar Football Association, to the international players’ union FIFPro and to the country’s World Cup bid ambassadors Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola.
All in vain.
The QFA sidestepped the issue at the weekend by claiming that Belounis signed a contract with a military club which did not come under its direct jurisdiction.
A statement said: “According to our records, Zahir Belounis played for the army team of Al Jeish Club with his status of military and therefore he never signed an employment contract with Al Jeish Club as a professional player.
“In this respect, 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”.
In 2012 Al Jeish were promoted to the Qatar Stars League, run under the official auspices of the QFA. At that point it had to be converted into legitimate football club. That was when it decided to ditch Belounis who, according to QFA, took up the contract issue with the Military Sports Association.
Saoud Al Mohannadi, general secretary of the Qatar FA, said: “He is still being paid every month by the military, I’m 100 per cent sure. He has a permanent job in the armed forces. They are his sponsor, not Al-Jeish. Usually if there is a dispute, the player concerned contacts us but we only heard of the case through the media. We would encourage him to sit down with the relevant parties, sign an agreement – and that’s it.
“Do you think someone would stay in a country for almost two years without any money? He has a villa provided by the military and a car. Unless he has done something wrong and has no liability towards anybody, he can get an exit permit.”
The QFA also pointed out that when he went out on loan to in 2011-12 to second division Al Markhiya and claimed outstanding payments from them too, it helped him receive “full compensation” with the minimum of fuss.
One further complication may be the fact that Belounis, according to the international players’ union, FIFPro, became a Qatari national to enable him to appear in the national team at the 2011 Military World Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The player’s brother, Mahdi, has disputed the QFA version.
Mahdi said the claim that the army was paying Belounis was a lie; that he should have been paid €5,000-per-moth but this was cut to €800-a-month and even that ended last February. The player had survived since then on money sent by family and friends. Not only that but Belounis faced €70,000-plus demand from the club in rent for the house in which he is living.
A white Toyota Corolla which had been provided for him under the terms of the contract had been repossessed almost a year ago.
Belounis himself, said Mahdi, had been unable to hold a press conference because of fatigue and depression brought on by the controversy.
It has been proposed that one of the human rights organisations concerned about both his case and now his state of health might be able to assist.
Clearly the issue will not go away.