It turns out that migrant laborers aren’t the only ones trapped in Qatar as the country frantically prepares to host a World Cup it never should have been awarded in the first place.
A 33-year-old French soccer player, Zahir Belounis, has been trying to escape from Doha for more than a year but can’t overcome the country’s repressive labor laws. When you take a job in Qatar, you effectively surrender your passport to your employer. It’s called the kafala system, and if it sounds like modern-day slavery, it is. Whether you’re a Nepalese construction worker, a Filipino nanny or a professional French soccer player, you’re stuck until your “sponsor” releases you.
Belounis, who hasn’t been paid since May, 2012, has been reduced to selling his possessions to support his family. He has dropped his claim against his former club for lost wages, but that still hasn’t helped his cause. Neither has a direct appeal from the French government. And I don’t need to tell you how useless FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the Oliver Hardy of the global game, has been on the matter.
Belounis has threatened a hunger strike and even, he says, contemplated suicide. Maybe he’s just being melodramatic, but this week he wrote a public letter on his own behalf.
How does a man held against his will plead for release without offending the country holding him hostage? With flattery, of course!
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.
Then Belounis gets to the point:
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.
This is the equivalent of a desperate man telling his kidnappers how smart and handsome and generous they are -- and now would they be so kind as to please release him?
The letter was addressed to two legendary players, Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola, who Belounis urged to intervene on his behalf. “I ask you to use your influence as football ambassadors to talk about what is happening to me and what is happening to many other young men here in Qatar,” he wrote.
Belounis didn’t choose Zidane or Guardiola at random. Both men have helped Qatar gain legitimacy in the soccer world. Qatar reportedly paid Zidane more than $2 million to serve as an ambassador for its 2022 World Cup bid. In that capacity, he helped convince FIFA to award the most beloved international tournament in all of sports to a small, authoritarian regime in the Arabian Peninsula. Without Guardiola, the former FC Barcelona manager who now presides over Bayern Munich, Qatar Airways surely wouldn’t have its name emblazoned across the chest of the world’s biggest soccer star, Lionel Messi. The plea of a second-division player in Qatar -- former player, anyway -- may not get the attention of either man. But it should.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)