Zahir Belounis Speaks out After Release from Qatar

Tim Keeney@@t_keenContributor IDecember 3, 2013

DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 23:  Fans wearing traditional local dress attend the Gharafa vs. Kharaitiyat Qatar Stars League football match at Al Gharafa Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Doha, Qatar. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup football competition and is slated to tackle a variety of infrastructure projects, including the construction of new stadiums.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week, Zahir Belounis was freed from Qatarand it couldn't have come at a better time. 

According to the French-Algerian striker, who had been denied an exit visa from his club, El Jaish SC, he had planned an illegal escape from the country and even considered suicide not long before he was granted his release. 

He talked about the nightmarish ordeal with BBC's Ben Smith:

"What nobody knows was that I prepared an escape," he says. "I will not say how I was going to do it, because I don't want to give bad ideas to some people. But I had taken that decision. I had no chance. I said 'I will be home before Christmas'. That was the choice I made."

When asked about the moments he considered suicide, he finds it hard to explain how and why he reached rock bottom. "My brother and friends will tell you I am a strong man," he says.

"But after this fight I had no choice. The only I way I was able to stop doing something bad to myself was to drink. Alcohol was a help to me, I thought about something else until the morning. It was the only way I had."

For the uninitiated, Belounis made his debut for El Jaish in 2010, but after he took legal action against his club for failing to pay salary, he became a captive of Qatar.

That's because, as Smith explains, in the Western Asian country, every foreign worker is bound to his or her employer. In what is known as the Kafala system, workers are not allowed to leave their jobs or the country without permission. 

When Belounis took his club to court for the failure to pay his wages, they refused to grant him an exit visa. 

Fortunately, for the 33-year-old who had seemingly hit rock bottom in an impossibly unfair situation, this story has a happy ending. 

On Wednesday, his brother tweeted the good news:

Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated shared this image of Belounis with his mother:

According to Smith, however, it hasn't always been a celebration for Belounis, who—now back in Paris—is doing his best to tell his story and increase awareness about the thousands of others who are still stuck in Qatar.     

Moreover, while most will jump at the opportunity to use this story as yet another reason for skepticism toward the 2022 World Cup being in Qatar, Belounis, amazingly enough, holds no grudge against the country.

Instead, his criticism is with the Kafala system:

I heard that maybe Qatar will change the rules for footballers and maybe they will cancel the Kafala system. But for me, the value of a football player and a worker is the same. If you cancel the system for a football player, you need to cancel it everybody.

Qatar will host something amazing. It will be like no World Cup we have seen before. I wish all the best for the Qatari people. But I tell you my life was a disaster, I did nothing wrong. But the system destroyed me, it destroyed me.

Belounis, who said he likely won't play professional football again, even told Smith he would be willing to be a World Cup ambassador in Qatar as long as the Kafala system is eventually abolished. 

For all that this man has been through in the last couple of years, it's truly amazing that instead of being full of rage, he is focused on solving this problem and using his story as a cautionary one to help others and instill change.