Belounis: I don't hold a grudge against Qatar… I'm happy that they will be staging the World Cup

Sitting with his wife, Johanna, in a hotel bar overlooking the Gare Du Nord in Paris, Zahir Belounis insists that he is uncomfortable with the thought that he has become a figurehead for human rights.

'Some people are treating me like a symbol,' he said. 'But I am not a symbol. I just talk about my story.'

That story, however, is no ordinary tale of a sporting life turned sour. Belounis, now 33, is the Frenchman who went to Qatar to pursue his career as one of the journeymen of football and found himself trapped without money - or hope - in the country which will, controversially, host the World Cup in 2022.

Home at last: Zahir Belounis and wife Johanna in Paris

Home at last: Zahir Belounis and wife Johanna in Paris

He had fallen foul of the Gulf State's system of 'kafala', which governs the way foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population, are treated. Under Qatari law, foreigners have to be sponsored by their employers not just to obtain a visa to work there but also to receive an exit visa to leave the country. 

Anyone who, like Belounis, becomes embroiled in a dispute with his employer stands no chance of being allowed to leave the country. In his case, that resulted in being trapped for two years in a nightmare that he admits drove him to drink and the brink of suicide.

He had moved to Qatar, to join the El Jaish club, in 2007 after an undistinguished career in the lower leagues of French and Swiss football. To begin with, life was good.

'My wife didn't come back to Switzerland with me because it was so cold and there was so much snow,' he recalled last week. 'So I said to her: "OK, now I have a club in Qatar. It's very hot there!" 

'The first year I went to Qatar alone, just to see it. The second year I said to my wife, "Come. It's very nice". It was wonderful. I played in central midfield. I'm not a famous player but they offered me another contract in 2010 until 2015. They convinced me to go back and I accepted.'

Controversy: Belounis found himself trapped without money - or hope

Controversy: Belounis found himself trapped without money - or hope

His dream fell apart, he says, when El Jaish were promoted the following year to the Qatar Stars League, the top division. 

'When they get what they want,  within 20 seconds it was: "OK, it's done for you. Over".'

Belounis claims the club refused to pay him his full salary and then stopped paying him altogether last February. Desperate, he complained to the local courts but found himself unable to gain an exit visa so he could go home to France.

Johanna and their daughters, aged two and four, returned to Paris - where the couple had met as teenagers - over the summer. But with his family away, Belounis was depressed and drinking heavily. 'Drink was the only way to forget,' he said. Johanna, who went back to Qatar with her daughters in September, said: 'Of course, I was worried. He needed me and my two daughters to be with him. 

'As a woman it's hard when you see your husband stays all day long in the dark with the curtain closed. He didn't want to speak with the kids, he didn't want to go out. It was really hard. Before this, we were a happy family with a simple life.'

Dropping their claim in court might have secured an exit visa but they feared that if they did so, they might be charged with defamation and be in a worse situation - barred from leaving and under criminal investigation.

Spotlight: Belounis is surrounded by cameras as he arrives at Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris

Spotlight: Belounis is surrounded by cameras as he arrives at Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris

Belounis felt suicidal. 'Every day I would wake up and tell myself: "Look, you have your family". I had done nothing wrong but I spent all my savings and, towards the end, I had only friends who could send me money. My life went from comfortable to disaster.

'I said to my wife: "Go to France with the children. I will die here". She replied: "Never". If she had not stayed, it would have been terrible for me. Now I think our love is stronger.' 

Belounis became a cause celebre and he says he will be forever grateful for public support from Gary Lineker and Arsene Wenger. But FIFA, the world governing body who had awarded Qatar the World Cup, refused to get involved, saying Belounis should have taken his case to the Qatari FA and then to FIFA rather than go through the courts.

Finally, just over a week ago, diplomacy resulted in an exit visa being granted. Belounis and his family could return home, the authorities seemingly embarrassed into action.

Relief: Belounis, left, with FIFPro (Professional Football Players Association) representative Stephane Saint Raymond

Relief: Belounis, left, with FIFPro (Professional Football Players Association) representative Stephane Saint Raymond

'Now my husband has to find a new job and a new life for our daughters,' said Johanna. 'We have to pay back money to all our friends. We have to start a new life. 

'Because we spent more than six years in Qatar, that means six years of our life is wasted because we have no money and no work. We have to start everything from the beginning.'

Zahir signed a backdated termination of his contract to help get his exit visa. His lawyers, still fighting the case in Qatar, say it was signed under duress and they will continue to fight for the money he claims he is owed.

Perhaps surprisingly, Belounis says he remains happy for Qatar to host football's greatest tournament in 2022. 'I have Algerian roots and for the Middle East it's a very good thing that Qatar has the World Cup,' he said. 'I will not defend the kafala system. Because I am a footballer it was easier to get out, but I think about those people who still can't leave.' 

He cites two French citizens, football coach Stephane Morello and businessman Nasser al-Awartany, who remain similarly trapped, but insists that, until the dispute with his club, he had enjoyed his time in Qatar. 'Really, life was very nice,' he said. 

There is cautious optimism among international groups that there will be change over the laws governing migrant labour. 

Zahir said: 'I think the new government are trying to make a good thing and some people were very sad for my situation. But you know I will not talk about it. I will not go into the politics. 

'Firstly, I am not a politician. Secondly, I am thinking about what job can I do tomorrow, how I can give something to my daughters? I am far away from what they will do in 2022. I hope all the best for them. But the people who destroyed me, I will not forgive and I will not forget.'