(CNN) — The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has an unlikely backer — Zahir Belounis.
Despite being stuck in Qatar for two years in an ordeal that he says left him contemplating a hunger strike and suicide, the freed footballer insists the Middle Eastern nation deserves to stage arguably the world’s top sporting event.
World governing body FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 contest to Qatar three years ago has generated controversy both over what time of the year it will be held and the way migrant workers, largely responsible for the tournament’s infrastructure, are treated.
“They deserve it,” the French-Algerian told CNN on Friday. The “people are working very hard for it. A lot of Qatari friends were sad at my situation.
“I enjoyed my time there. The people who tried to destroy my life, I will not forgive them, but I will forever cherish the people who helped me. My life in Qatar was great, but the last two years were a disaster.”
A relieved and exhausted Belounis, who was embroiled in a pay dispute with club El Jaish, returned home to Paris on Thursday with his wife and two daughters after the 33-year-old was finally granted an exit visa.
But instead of saying Qatar should be stripped of holding the World Cup because of its controversial employment laws — especially the kafala system, which effectively means foreign employees can’t leave the country without their employer’s permission — Belounis indeed backed the emirate’s right to host the competition.
An Amnesty International report released last week claimed the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar was an issue and even Sepp Blatter has described working conditions there as “unacceptable” — although the FIFA president is adamant the World Cup in nine years won’t be moved to another country.
“World Cup organizers were sad” about his predicament, said Belounis. “I can’t say bad things against Qataris or Qatar, just against the club,” he added in reference to his dispute with El Jaish.
As well as endorsing Qatar as World Cup host, Belounis said there was little wrong with the employment laws in place — as long as they were correctly followed.
“There are rules … if people respect them, everything will be fine,” he said. “I believe Qatar will grow up in a very good way. I don’t think I helped them to grow. Now we know that there are a lot of people that are abused.
“It’s not the state of Qatar or the government. There is a company that brings the workers. The company has to respect the rules. I’m sad to see the workers abused, but it’s not the organizers or the government.”
Belounis, a striker, credited his wife for being “stronger” than him during his nightmare when he admitted to crying “every day, like a baby.”
As Belounis’ fight to leave Qatar is over, so it also seems, is his playing career.
“I think it’s finished for me,” he said. “I think a team, as a symbolic thing, they (might) want me to train for them. My psychology is very bad right now.
“I didn’t take any medication but I will see if I have the power to train. The fight was so intense.”
The last few months might have made Belounis a cause celebre, but he believes he won’t be headline news for very much longer.
“In one or two weeks, everyone will forget about me,” he said. “I have to focus on my life, have a normal life, find a job, to restart my life and enjoy my family.”
The Qatari Foreign Ministry and Qatari Football Association (QFA) didn’t reply to CNN’s queries earlier this week seeking comment.
But in October, the QFA told CNN that “as in any other football association in the world, there will unfortunately always be contractual disputes between clubs and players/coaches.”
It added: “It is also relevant to emphasize that up to now the player has not taken any action in front of the competent judicial bodies of FIFA.”
The QFA said further that Belounis received full compensation in relation to a claim he made for compensation from another club, Al Markhiya.
“However, in the alleged case of El Jaish Club, Zahir Belounis did not contact QFA, although he had experienced the efficiency of doing so when his request was legitimate,” it said.