The French footballer Zahir Belounis who was prevented from leaving Qatar will have an emotional reunion with his wider family on Thursday evening at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport when he finally returns to the country after a bitter battle over his exit visa.
Belounis’s plight, picked up by The Independent, became an international cause that threatened to damage Qatar’s attempts to burnish their international reputation ahead of the 2022 World Cup finals. The Gulf state finally relented on Wednesday and granted the player an exit visa after decisive pressure was brought to bear by FifPro, the international footballers’ union.
Belounis, 33, had been told he could not leave the country unless he dropped a legal action begun in February against his former club El Jaish over what was then 18 months’ unpaid wages. Campaigners from the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), who have supported Belounis, said that his legal case will continue even after he arrives back in Paris at 7pm on Thursday.
The tipping point came this week when the latest round of negotiations to secure Belounis an exit visa, under the controversial kafala system of visa sponsorship, came to nothing. It was then that FifPro opted to make public their concerns and the Qatari authorities decided that they would accede to the request that Belounis and his family could leave the country.
The French national, whose case was taken up by his country’s president, François Hollande, when he visited Qatar in June, to no avail, admitted in September that his effective captivity in the country had driven him to the brink of suicide. He benefited from high-profile interventions in the football world, including public support from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.
Belounis’s case was also aided by the former Morocco international Abdeslam Ouaddou, who has been highly critical of his own treatment during a spell playing in Qatar. The next challenge for Belounis will be to rebuild his life in France in the knowledge that his career as a footballer is almost certainly over.
The ITUC is campaigning for fair conditions for construction workers in Qatar, especially those involved over the next nine years in building the infrastructure for the World Cup finals. Tim Noonan, a director at the ITUC, who has worked closely with Belounis, said that Qatar had still not signed up to the international trade union standards.
He said: “We remain concerned about the hundreds of thousands of workers in construction and domestic work who are still under the kafala system – that has not changed. It has taken two years of immense pressure to get one person’s cause resolved. His legal case will continue.
“I have spoken to Zahir and he is extremely happy. As to why the system would allow this abuse to happen is beyond any reason. It reinforces the cause that reform is needed. The community in France will have to help Zahir find his feet again in a professional sense but also to overcome the psychological damage done to him.
A delegation from FifPro will travel to Qatar on Thursday to speak to the authorities there about the kafala sponsorship system and how it affects footballers.
Belounis’s brother Mahdi praised the role FifPro had played in the affair. “I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that it happens the day after FifPro said they were going to Qatar to get him,” he said.
“But we should not forget that other players are still trapped in Qatar.”