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It was at the home of football players, the offices of the French National Union of Professional Football Players (UNFP) in Paris, that Zahir Belounis held his first press conference as a free man, in the presence of FIFPro President Philippe Piat, the former Moroccan international Abdes Ouaddou, and his own lawyer, Maître Franck Berton.

“Thank you, Mr President! Thank you, FIFPro!” The media excitement had faded away and two score journalists had left the UNFP offices when, visibly very moved, Zahir Belounis fell into the arms of FIFPro President Philippe Piat. The emotion was palpable.

The two men had spoken to each other on the phone several times in recent weeks. “It was FIFPro that looked after my accommodation in Qatar, when I didn’t have anything left, no more furniture, no more money to keep my family alive. It was after the message from FIFPro calling for my release that things really got moving."

"But I know that others, many others—French diplomats, my lawyer, the International Trade Union Confederation [ITUC], and many others who for sure I don’t know—took action to ensure I became a free man again, a free football player. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I didn’t break any law or commit any crime. I’m not a symbol, just a footballer who wanted to keep my family alive by practising my profession. Just a man who said no, who wanted to be respected. A man they tried to break!”

Very critical of FIFA and its President for their “lack of commitment”, Zahir Belounis, the free man, doesn’t forget those who remain in Qatar. Abdes Ouaddou, confronted with the same situation, calls them the “slaves of a system that crushes human beings with complete impunity”, a system he vigorously condemns.

Belounis: “I know two Frenchmen who, like me, could not leave that country. One of them is in prison today. The many interventions—and they were made at all levels—and the media support for my case enabled me to find a solution after many long months, during which they tried—and they succeeded in a certain measure—to break me. But what about an Indonesian, Pakistani or Indian worker in the same situation? Who’s helping and supporting them? I’m not going to forget them just because I’m free today. All of these horrors must cease!”

So this 33-year-old French football player, although he knows nothing as yet about his future in sport, is indeed determined to “continue the struggle” for, contrary to rumours circulating here and there, he has never signed the least document to withdraw any court actions in exchange for his liberty, which he regained last Thursday.

In order to obtain his exit visa, Belounis only had to sign a letter of premature dismissal dated February 2013 before “witnesses of unassailable probity”, although his contract extended to June 2015. This means abandoning wage claims amounting to 120-150,000 euros. “This is the very definition of a criminal offence, it’s sheer extortion”, commented Belounis’s lawyer, Franck Berton.

The reason why, as Zahir and his lawyer moreover confirmed, the complaint lodged with Qatar is still running, and that the French justice system will be appealed to by the start of next week at latest: “We have agreed”, explains Franck Berton, “to call on the Paris prosecutors by lodging a complaint based on three points: fraud, work under particularly inhuman conditions, which is a specific offence under the criminal code, and the extortion of funds.”

 

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On the left: Franck Berton, Zahir Belounis, Philippe Piat and Abdeslam Ouaddou

 

This complaint is aimed at the “sponsor” of the player who, as a foreign employee, is subject—on the same basis as all foreign workers in the Gulf country—to the kafala system, under which each employee is in fact virtually the property of his “sponsor”, his “kafil”.

“The extortion of funds is aggravated because of Zahir’s foreign nationality. Being a foreigner, he comes under the control of the kafala (sponsorship) system imposed on non-citizens in the Gulf, and that’s subject here to a penalty of ten years’ imprisonment”, said the lawyer.

The people he is targeting are the owners of two clubs, for the club that Belounis originally played for (Military Sport Association/2007-2010) was bought up by another (Al-Jaish/2010-2013).

So the complaint will specifically name Gamaan Al Hamad (President of the Military Sport Association) and Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al-Thani (President of Al-Jaish), who is none other than the brother of the Emir of Qatar.

The public prosecutor’s office in Paris is competent to deal with this matter, Maître Berton emphasized, noting that “any offence suffered by a French person abroad can be examined by the French justice system, and the Paris public prosecutor has exclusive jurisdiction.”

“The kafala system in particular was brought up during last week’s visit to Qatar by Mads Øland, a member of the FIFPro board. We want it to be abolished for footballers, and we are asking at the same time for the creation of a national dispute resolution chamber where all parties are equally represented, in accordance with FIFA regulations. There are discussions, promises and reality. We are not dupes, but we hope that football can initiate a course of action that all workers in Qatar might take advantage of. We have the 2022 World Cup as a lever, and we have to use it!”

Sometimes gazing into space, Zahir Belounis starts to dream: “If my case could get things moving, if football could succeed where all the others have failed, that would be splendid.”

Not far away from him, Abdes Ouaddou agrees, before adding, “All the world’s footballers must understand that they are not immune. They have rights, which must be respected. I know what I owe to the UNFP, the French union, and to FIFPro, which have aided and supported me too. Players all over the world should know that there are national associations they need to join in order to have their rights respected, and that FIFPro is there at world level. With the happy ending to the crisis experienced by Zahir, people now know—if anyone still doubted it—the power of the international union of football players.”