Zahir Belounis is sitting on the sofa in his house in Qatar and wondering whether it might make sense to commit suicide.
"I often lie in bed at night and cry like a girl. When that happens, I think that suicide is my only option to put an end to things. I think to myself that there's no other way be free."
He smiles absent-mindedly. Belounis lives beyond the skyscrapers of Doha, near the Landmark Shopping Mall. It's 11 a.m. on a day in late September, and the temperature has already reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Belounis is a 33-year-old French professional football player, a striker. He has played in the third division in Switzerland.
Six years ago, he came to Qatar, a bleak peninsula on the Persian Gulf, the richest country in the world and the host of the 2022 football World Cup.
"At the time, I thought I had won the jackpot," he says. "Today I have nothing. My life is ruined."
He's holding his hands between his knees. His pupils dart around the room like searchlights. His sunken cheeks are unshaven -- he has the face of a desperate man. Letters, files and documents are spread out on the table in front of him.
Belounis shows us his contract with the Qatari army football club, which identifies him as a professional footballer with the rank of a Senior Civil Technician. It's a five-year contract that ends on June 15, 2015. He's entitled to a monthly salary of 24,400 riyal, or €4,950 ($6,692).
'Qatar Is My Prison'
There is no fine print on the four-page contract. There are no loopholes and there is no deceptive wording, and yet Belounis hasn't been paid in 27 months.
"I'm not a famous player, and I'm not rich. Friends send me money from France so that we can make ends meet. My savings will be gone in five or six months. I have no idea what will happen after that."
He would like to board the next flight, together with his wife and children, and find a new club to work for, but that isn't an option for Belounis. Under Qatar's Kafala system, every migrant worker has a sponsor, usually the employer, and is not permitted to leave the country without the sponsor's permission. Belounis is unable to obtain an exit visa because his club refuses to let him go.
He fiddles with his mobile phone. He's waiting for a call from the French consul general or an attorney. Someone must be able to help him, he says. But the phone remains silent.
"I'm trapped here," says Belounis. "Qatar is my prison."
Qatar likes to portray itself as an enlightened monarchy, a country where tradition meets the modern age, and a nation that intends to make a name for itself in the world of sports. The emirate plans to invest well over €100 billion in roads, hotels and stadiums by the time it hosts the football World Cup nine years from now.
But it's a mirage flickering in the Qatari desert. The country is home to 300,000 wealthy citizens and 1.7 million immigrants who do the work. Last week, Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed that 70 Nepalese workers have died since the beginning of 2012 after working in slave-like conditions on Qatari construction sites. The organization Human Rights Watch claims that seven Europeans and Americans are being held against their will in Qatar. One is footballer Belounis.
Payments Stop without Explanation
The 14 teams in the Qatar Stars League hold their matches on Fridays and Saturdays. Four foreigners are allowed to play for each team. They are often fading stars from Europe and South America, who have gone to Qatar to beef up their bank accounts. Spanish player Raúl González Blanco, the current hot shot, is reportedly paid €6 million a year.
Blanco, commonly known as Raúl, is treated like a king in Qatar, while Belounis is humiliated and treated like a servant. Belounis initially played for the army club in the country's second-division league. He signed his current contract after three years, and the club rented a house for him and provided him with a car. He was the team's captain and, in the 2010-2011 season, led it into the first division.
Belounis clears his throat and looks at the floor. "That was when the nightmare began," he says.
His club was newly formed for the Stars League and renamed the El Jaish Sports Club. During the off-season, says Belounis, he read on the Internet that the club had signed two new players, a Brazilian and an Algerian. "I thought: Hey, we're going to be a be a good team," he says. But then he was summoned by the manager and told that he was no longer needed and had to switch clubs, which meant returning to the second division for a year.
"I was disappointed, but I cooperated, because he had guaranteed me that my contract would remain in effect. He promised me that I would keep my salary, even though I would be playing elsewhere. He lied," he says. Belounis waited for his money every month, made calls to El Jaish every week and spent hours waiting outside the club's offices. But nothing happened.
Belounis hired an attorney last October, and in February he filed a lawsuit in the Doha Administrative Court, under case No. 47/2013. Among other things, he is claiming 364,350 riyal, or €74,000, in compensation. Raúl probably wouldn't even pull up his socks for that amount of money.
"I didn't do anything bad," says Belounis. "Nothing at all. I'm only asking for what I'm entitled to."
Like a Kafka Novel
Belounis occasionally trips over his words, and sometimes his voice trails off. He says that the club's general secretary told him that he would not get his exit visa unless he dropped the lawsuit. He says that he was told to sign a document stating that he, Zahir Belounis, is terminating his contract. If he terminates the contract, the club will not be required to pay him the money he is owed.
The club took away his car and, four weeks ago, informed him that he would soon be required to pay €4,000 in monthly rent for the house. "How is that supposed to work? They are trying to coerce me," he says.
Belounis has appealed to the French embassy for assistance. He wanted to go on a hunger strike, but his attorney advised against it. He even asked French President François Hollande for help and had a 20-minute conversation with him in June, when Hollande was in Qatar to dedicate a school. "The president told me to remain strong. He said that he would find a solution. But nothing happened."
Belounis hasn't played football in a year. He kept himself in shape at first, but now he doesn't make the effort anymore. He sleeps late, rarely opens the curtains, watches a lot of TV and has started smoking -- and is already up to 20 cigarettes a day.
He gets up, takes his wife's car and drives into the city to see Stéphane Morello, one of the few friends he has left. The two men want to discuss the next steps in their fight for justice.
Morello, a 51-year-old fellow Frenchman, arrived in Doha in May 2007. On Aug. 2, the country's National Olympic Committee hired him to coach the Al-Shahaniya Sports Club, whose team was playing in the second division. He was offered a salary of 11,280 riyals a month (€2,285), which is pocket money in Qatar. He has been trying to leave the country for the last three years.
His house could use a good cleaning. A print of Picasso's "Guernica" hangs crookedly on the wall. Morello is wearing a linen suit and chain-smoking. "The Qataris are nothing but a mafia," he says.
His contract with the Olympic Committee was valid for only a year, but it was extended automatically by a year at a time, unless one of the parties gave at least 30 days notice prior to its expiration.
Morello switched clubs after the first year, when the Olympic Committee transferred him to the Al-Shamal Sports Club, which had been relegated from the Stars League to the second division. He began working for Al-Shamal on Oct. 22, 2008, and on Jan. 7, 2009 the club fired him -- the club, and not the Olympic Committee, his actual employer.
Morello asked the committee to find him a new club, and he demanded to be paid his remaining salary, but before long he felt like a character in a story by Franz Kafka. He was sent from one office to another and back again, with everyone claiming that he wasn't their problem.
'A Barbaric Country'
On June 27, 2010, his patience had run out. He withdrew from his contract, invoking Article 51 of the Qatari labor law, and demanded that the general secretary of the Olympic Committee issue him an exit permit so that he could leave within the next 14 days. But no permit was issued.
Morello now teaches French and mathematics at an elementary school for 25 hours a week, "more or less legally," as he says. "I don't know why Qatar is doing this to me," he says. "All I know is that I want to go home."
He has appealed for help from a Moroccan who was in a similar situation but managed to get out of Qatar.
Abdeslam Ouaddou is walking across Place Stanislas in the northeastern French city of Nancy. He returned from Qatar on Nov. 21, 2012. "It's a barbaric country. I will never set foot in that place again," he says. "If Qatar is allowed to host the World Cup, it will be a World Cup of slave traders, a World Cup of shame."
His case is before the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), under reference number 12-02884/mis.
Ouaddou has a shaved head, is rail thin and dressed completely in black. He played 68 games for the Moroccan national team as a defender. He also played for FC Fulham in England and Olympiacos Piraeus in the Champions League.
In July 2010, Ouaddou joined Lekhwiya SC in Qatar. The club won the championship in the first season, and the trophy was presented to Ouaddou. Nevertheless, he was forced to switch to Qatar SC, without a transfer fee or a lending fee -- and without having a say in the matter. Ouaddou didn't want to go, but the manager told him that it was the prince's express wish, and that the prince's wishes were non-negotiable.
There were still two years left on his contract, but he was eliminated from SC Qatar after the first season. Ouaddou refused to sign a termination contract, because he was in good shape and wanted to play. As a first step, the club's management suspended him from the team's training sessions.
Then it removed Ouaddou from the team and refused to issue him a jersey. When the remaining players and club management gathered for a team photo, he demonstratively joined the group, wearing a T-shirt, standing with his legs apart and with his hands on his hips -- as a sign that he wasn't about to give in. The officials wore white robes and laughed.
Threatening Phone Calls
Ouaddou wanted to leave Qatar but was refused an exit visa. He appealed to FIFA on Sept. 27. The club relented, but only after he had announced his intention to go public with his story. "The club's general manager said something to me that I will never forget: Ouaddou, you'll get your visa, but I promise you that it will take five or six years before FIFA issues a ruling in this matter. We have a lot of influence at FIFA."
Ouaddou shrugs his shoulders as he walks through Nancy. He is still waiting for FIFA's decision. The Qataris owe him a year's salary. In a fax he received recently, FIFA wrote that it had completed its investigation. At least he has a glimmer of hope, he says.
He advised Belounis to get FIFA involved, but isn't sure that it will do him any good. "My name saved me. I was able to leave because I'm a well-known player. Zahir isn't," he says.
Ouaddou hasn't found a new club yet. He's now working with the International Trade Union Confederation. This week, he is scheduled to speak at a world conference on human working conditions in Vienna, where he will talk about "modern slavery in Qatar." He also supports the "Re-run the Vote" campaign, which wants FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to a different host.
His BlackBerry rings, but Ouaddou doesn't answer the call. He says that he receives threatening phone calls from unlisted numbers, and that someone has warned him against the dire consequences of criticizing Qatar. He telephones with Belounis two or three times a week. "He's depressed. I try to convince him not to do anything stupid," he says. He also speaks with Morello on a regular basis.
Morello is supposed to appear on the Doha Corniche for a photo on a Friday evening, shortly before sunset, but he doesn't show up. He sends a text message instead, writing that he doesn't want to be photographed, because he doesn't want anyone to know what he looks like. He is afraid of the consequences.
Belounis arrives on time. He sits down on a wall, against a backdrop of dhows bobbing up and down in the water and the shimmering city skyline. A demolition hammer rattles in the background.
"Qatar has earned the World Cup -- write that," says Belounis. "Please write that. I don't know how much longer I'll have to live in this country. Perhaps I'll never get out of here. I'm afraid that the sheikh will apply pressure on the judge. And then what will happen to me? And to my family? So, please, write that."
The Qatari Football Association, the clubs and the National Olympic Committee have declined to comment on the cases. The Football Association noted, however, that it has "the greatest respect for each individual."