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Professional footballer Abdeslam Ouaddou is still angry. He speaks fast, without even getting his breath back at the end of long sentences that express this ongoing injury to his dignity as a man.

 

‘The Qataris think they can get away with everything, because they think money can buy anything - buildings, shares, beautiful cars - and men.'

 

'For them, I was nothing but a slave.’

 

A slave. The word comes up again and again: an attempt at catharsis? Or a wish to show strength? This man is trying to reconstruct himself, while as a footballer, though he forgets nothing, he is looking forward to new adventures.

 

‘No one, not even they, will steal my life!’

 

To be completely honest, we had somewhat lost track of Abdeslam Ouaddou. The man who, as a player for French club Valenciennes in 2008, was a victim of the everyday racism that sometimes plagues stadiums as it pollutes societies, which are claimed to be modern nevertheless, and, like so many others, he took the highway to a gilded exile, leaving the French championship for the sands of Qatar, which were not at that time shifting. ‘When I tell my story, I sometimes feel a pang of irony. Even worse, it’s as though I heard a listener saying to me, ‘Well done you! What else is there in life besides money?’

 

Of course there’s money, and why not? ‘I often remember smiling when I heard this or that player talking of a project, a meeting or an adventure when referring to his departure for that kind of country, and passing over in silence this other motivation that money can represent for a professional sportsman. I myself have no shame in saying that money has been one of my motivations, but it hasn’t been the only one. Far from it, indeed.’

 

Do we criticize tennis players who start each year seeking their fortune at the Open in Doha, or golfers who, since 1998, have been attracted to the Qatar Masters? Do we say the soloists in the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra went off to seek their fortune in the shadow of the derricks? As always—or almost always—fingers are only pointed at footballers. 

 

 width‘Money? But I’ve been earning it throughout my career! I wasn’t on the street. As a matter of fact, the choice was forced on me. At the time of my separation from Nancy, in 2010, after twelve years at the highest level and having been selected for Morocco’s national team—the Lions of the Atlas—almost seventy times, I can’t claim that the offers I got were very numerous, even though I still had a lot to give on a pitch. When the proposal from the Lekhwiya Sports Club landed on my table, the most important factor was the presence of trainer Djamel Belmadi, my former teammate at Valenciennes, and the francophone atmosphere that prevailed within the club, in the staff, and even in the team, for Aruna Dindane and Bakari Koné, both of them Ivorian internationals, had also joined the ship. Of course we spoke about money. As we did when I signed each of my contracts. I’m a professional footballer. Football is my trade, and I’m paid to play it!’

 

‘The club had nothing to complain about, because we went well beyond the specified objectives. Lekhwiya was aiming for a place in the top four, but we ended the season on the top of the podium.’

 

As the captain of Qatar’s champion team in 2011 remembers, ‘Everything was beautiful, it was idyllic. Since we were winning, we were left in peace. Of course, we had to compromise, especially for Djamel: in Qatar, the trainer doesn’t make the team, nor does he have a say in recruitment. But we were on cloud nine, and our boss, the same one who presides over the destinies of Paris Saint-Germain, could only rub his hands with this title, the first in the history of the club.’

 

Love stories generally end badly. With the title in his pocket, the great Moroccan defender went back to France for his holidays, without a clue to what was happening behind the scenes.

 

‘I’ve learned, all too late, that contracts don’t have the same value in Qatar. From one day to the next, if your face doesn’t fit any more, you’re suddenly nothing. Nothing at all, whether you’re a champion, a captain, or an international. You’re just a negligible quantity, a little jerk!’

 

The former player for Nancy and Fulham recalls once more: ‘A very few days after training resumed - we were in the middle of training - they came up to see me and said I had to leave the club. I might have taken it for a joke, but I understood right away that the guy who’d come to tell me the news was not joking. I tried to discuss things, to understand, to convince, but there was no room for discussion, nothing to understand and no one to convince as soon as I learned that these were “orders from the Prince”. That was the only explanation I was finally able to get, accompanied, every time I tried to start a dialogue or negotiation, by another sentence that I heard who knows how many times: ”The Prince’s orders are not open to discussion”.’

 

The Prince, Sheikh Tamim ben Hamad Al Thani, didn’t want to abandon Abdeslam to his sad fate, and even showed himself to be generous, if we are to believe the words reported to have been spoken to his former captain. ‘He had decided to send me to another club, Qatar SC, and to offer me an additional year under contract, as a way of sugaring the pill for me. It was all very well for me to refuse, and refuse again, plead my cause, my wish to stay with the club in which I had just become a champion, the club in which I felt good, but I came up against a brick wall.’

 

The trial of strength was pointless, and Ouaddou, after understanding this, ended up admitting it. ‘I changed clubs against my will but, bizarre as it may seem, there was no transfer, no loan, and no amicable termination of my contract with Lekhwiya. I moved from one club to another as if by magic. I was merely given a new two-year contract, and I was asked to sign it. This was admittedly a year more than I had initially committed myself to, but it wasn’t what I wanted!’

 

Qatar SC ended up in eighth place in the 2012 championships, while Lekhwiya won its second title in two years. Without Abdeslam…

 

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Again history repeated itself. Holidays in France, then back to Qatar. ‘And there I was again, summoned by the managers on the first day of training. This time, they didn’t offer me a new chance or a new club: the committee wanted to terminate my contract, which runs until July 2013. They mentioned a small amount of compensation, but they made me understand above all else that the decision was firm and final.’

 

When Abdeslam refused, he was caught up in a vicious circle. A few examples: ‘One day, I was removed from the list of players given to the Federation, which meant I no longer had a right to play in official games. My name was systematically withdrawn from all the club communications, and I wasn’t entitled to the facilities. I took part in team warm-ups, but as soon as there were games with a ball, as soon as there was the least opposition, I was left on one side.’

 

 

This alone shows that Qatari managers, though novices in the world of football, are quick to pick up the bad habits of their western colleagues, who see respect for contracts as merely a burden for players’ shoulders.

 

‘They did everything to discourage me, to isolate me. I obeyed, without ever complaining, without ever raising my voice. As this treatment didn’t work, they changed up a gear. I learned, first of all, that I didn’t have a right to participate in the pre-season training programme. But I still had to turn up at training sessions all the same, every day. Finally, twice a day: one session at the warmest time of the morning, another in the afternoon when the sun hits hardest. Sessions entirely dedicated to physical work, at 40 and 50 degrees in the shade.’ Except that there is no shade on a training field…

 

Ouaddou bowed down, gritted his teeth and hung on. He knew they wanted to break him, he knew they wanted to push him into stepping out of line. ‘Many others, in other clubs, have given way after just a few days, because these methods are inhuman, barbaric. I can still hear the trainer who looked after me saying I could put an end to my suffering by agreeing to leave, but I didn’t give way. I don’t know whether it was the body or the spirit, or both of them, but I held out.’

 

 widthThe former Moroccan international did absolutely anything he could before agreeing to break his contract. ‘They stopped paying me. When I went to claim my due, no one ever answered. I no longer existed. In vain I asked to meet the Sheikh. In July, I initiated proceedings with FIFA.’

 

After 90 days without pay, according to the regulations of the International Federation, a player is free to break his contract. But Abdeslam’s troubles had not ended for all that. When FIFA passed on his request to the Federation, which then passed it on to the club, while the player was trying by every means to open the doors of dialogue with his club, while he had not received the smallest amount of money since returning to the club, it was a phone call that left him as groggy as a boxer in his corner after escaping a knock out. ‘To work in Qatar, it is necessary to be sponsored by a Qatari. I was sponsored by a member of my first club, Lekhwiya. It was that person, obviously, who called to tell me I would get my exit visa on one condition only: that I withdraw my complaint to FIFA!’

 

In Qatar, where sport has become the primary tool for communication, they don’t like trouble. Everything is a question of image. And this Ouaddou who was making a noise, agitating, he was not good for their image. ‘When I started saying that I was going to appeal to the Human Rights League as well, the tone changed. They quickly gave me my exit visa and, last November, I left Qatar.'

 

'But they gave me this parting message: “We are going to do everything we can to make this business drag on, so that you will be waiting for your money as long as possible. Four or five years minimum, we have a lot of influence with FIFA!” Those people don’t respect anything or anyone.’

 

‘The Qataris think they can get away with everything, because they think money can buy anything - buildings, shares, beautiful cars - and men. For them, I was nothing but a slave!’

 

For Ouaddou, the struggle continues. He is fighting for himself and for all the footballers who, he insists, ‘have known exactly the same problems as I. There are many of them. The Qataris showed me no respect and I can never forgive them for it. I know they are powerful, I know that all doors open up before them, I know that money is king, but you don’t treat a man that way without paying a price. I shall never stop denouncing their methods! They wanted to break me, but they didn’t succeed. I’m going to bounce back—or at least I hope to do so. I still want to state my case at the highest level, and I still have the means. No one, not even the Qataris, is going to steal my life!’

 

 

 

Article by Stéphane Saint-Raymond

 

 

 

 

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