Qatar relents and releases French footballer Zahir Belounis after outcry

Belounis has been stuck in Qatar after being refused an exit visa

Chief Football Correspondent

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.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us