Zahir Belounis is a 33-year-old French professional soccer player. Chances are you’ve never heard of him — he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. His plight, however, is something worth keeping an eye on as we inch closer to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The Qatari World Cup has already come under all sorts of scrutiny. It began with allegations of corruption in the bidding process, and has also focused on the logistical questions of playing soccer in 120-degree heat. Oh, there’s also the country’s strict anti-gay policy seemingly written circa 1767. The latest issue for Qatar as it begins building its billion-dollar soccer edifices in the desert is the use of migrant labor. Qatar has so-called “exit visas” which prevent workers from leaving the country without permission from their employer. This is part of the reason why you hear the term “slave labor” hurled around the tiny Gulf state often.
Belounis finds himself smack dab in the center of the exit visa problem after a dispute over pay with his club, El Jaish, two years ago. He has since been trapped in Qatar with his wife and daughter due to the lack of an exit visa. The family has been forced to sell off most of their belongings and currently live in an apartment without any furniture.
Thursday, Belounis wrote a letter to Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola — both ambassadors for the Qatar World Cup — appealing for their help to get him back to France. The Guardian published the entire letter and it’s powerful stuff. Here are some excerpts:
I know that you served as ambassadors for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid. You did this with good intentions but the reality is that if Qatar does not scrap its “exit visa” system, then there will be hundreds, maybe thousands, of people trapped here.
Before these problems I was a happy man in Doha. My two daughters were born here and I know that many Qataris are working hard to make this an unforgettable World Cup and I am sure that it will be! The Middle East deserves to host this global event because it is a unique way to bring people together to enjoy a fraternal celebration between nations. On the other hand, and in spite of all the good things that I could say about this country that has a sincere desire to do great things, I have been living a nightmare for several months because of the kafala system. This system is slowly killing me and many other people risk suffering in the same way. I am well placed to speak about it because I am completely bound up in it, so I take this opportunity to demand change for a better world …
You know what it is like to have children. Imagine what I am going through every day in a house that is half-empty – because when they promised me that they would give me my exit visa, I sold my furniture – and when I see the look in my daughters’ eyes, I feel ashamed, I feel disgusted with myself for inflicting such conditions on them.
It’s not a very pretty picture for Qatar. You wish FIFA would pay more attention to issues like this instead of focusing on moving the tournament to winter months. FIFA, being FIFA, says it’s hands are tied on the matter, hiding behind its typical bureaucratic b.s.:
“FIFA is unable to intervene in this matter given that Mr. Belounis chose the option of contacting an ordinary court in Qatar instead of the second option available to refer to FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC),” they said in a statement.
“Furthermore, we would like to point out that FIFA has to date received no contractual claim from Zahir Belounis against his Qatari club as well as any accompanying documentation to support his case.”
Hopefully, as his situation receives more attention, Belounis will be granted his long-desired exit visa. Even if that happens, Qatar’s less-than-flattering human rights record remains. As more stuff like this comes to light, we can hope Fox analyst Eric Wynalda is right about his prediction there’s no way the World Cup is actually played in Qatar. As Belounis writes, the Middle East deserves to host a World Cup, but it doesn’t need to be played in stadiums built on the backs of laborers trapped inside the country against their will.