For the previous two years, he had been trapped in Qatar. A dispute over unpaid wages led to his numerous requests for an ‘exit visa’ being denied. Eighteen months with no income. A wife and two children to support.
Depressed, suicidal, he contemplated hunger strike. He sold his furniture and slept on the floor of his empty house.
For two years, Zahir Belounis was a slave, his basic human rights ignored. Last Thursday evening, he was finally free.
But Belounis is an after-thought. So too is Abdeslam Ouaddou, another journeyman footballer, a former Moroccan international who endured a similar stand-off with a Qatari club over wages owed. Speaking to the International Trade Union Confederation earlier this year, Ouaddou said: “When you arrive in Qatar, it’s beautiful — a country under construction with tall skyscrapers. But it’s like spotting an oasis in the desert when you’re thirsty.
“When you get closer, you realise there’s nothing there. It’s a mirage. If the country does not change its ways then in 2022 we will have the World Cup of Shame and the World Cup of Slavery because of how Qatar disrespects human rights.”
Football has turned its back on social issues for a long time. The sport’s governing body continues to avoid taking hard-line action against racism and awarded successive World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 to countries who take pride in their anti-gay legislation. But Fifa’s form on such matters goes back a long way. In 2008, Sepp Blatter suggested there was too much ‘modern slavery’ in how footballers were bought and sold. He felt players weren’t protected enough. Naturally, there was an outcry. Blatter was not just wrong. The flippant remark, made in regard to the pampered, lock-jawed, pop-star, football elite, was insensitive and ignorant to an ill that was rapidly spreading.
Monday, on RTÉ One, the first episode in a new series of Peadar King’s ‘What In The World?’ focuses on this ever-expanding African enterprise. Filmed in Cameroon and France, the documentary investigates how rogue agents and local football ‘experts’ trade in a most-lucrative of currencies: young, naive footballers. They aspire to be the next Samuel Eto’o or Yaya Toure. They want the Premier League or Serie A. What they get is abandonment, homelessness and embarrassment.
We hear Issa’s story. A Malian, he arrived in Paris at 16. A goalkeeper, he dreamed of emulating his heroes Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon. His ‘agent’ promised everything. A contract with a French club? No problem. All the ‘agent’ needed was a substantial payment. Issa’s parents raised the money, somehow. The ‘agent’ accompanied Issa to Paris. They went to McDonalds. The ‘agent’ gave Issa €20. Then he left. Issa waited for three hours. That’s Issa’s story.
Another young African, Willy, points to a stairwell inside a dilapidated stadium. That’s where he slept for two months. He had been deserted by his ‘agent’ too. He called him relentlessly. The ‘agent’s’ phone was switched off. It’s a jarring, uncomfortable reality. The boys’ names are interchangeable but their stories are identical. Another boy, Raul, had paid the ultimate price. He returned home to Africa after similar broken promises. A talented player, his parents had handed over thousands of euro to get him to Europe. The ‘agent’ took the money and never came back. Raul’s father now needs treatment for diabetes. There’s no money for the treatment. Every day, Raul is reminded of the shame he has brought on his family. It’s why so many of these African teenagers choose a life on the streets of Paris. They will choose sleeping in stadiums. They will choose drugs. They will choose crime. But they won’t go back home.
Last Thursday evening, Zahir Belounis went home. He hugged his mother. He spoke to radio and television stations. He had a platform with which to tell his story. It’s a story of human rights violations, a story of football slavery. It’s critical that people listen to his story. It’s critical that people listen to Issa, Willy and Raul. It’s critical that the 20,000 footballers trafficked out of Africa are given a voice.