DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran on Thursday arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its competition at the World Cup.
The semi-official news agencies Fars and Tasnim reported that Voria Ghafouri had been arrested for “insulting the national football team and propaganda against the government”.
Ghafouri, who was not selected for the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He opposed a long-standing ban on women watching men’s soccer games and Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which had led to crippling Western sanctions.
He recently expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in Iran’s Morality Police custody sparked recent protests. In recent days he has also called for an end to the crackdown on protests in the West Kurdistan region of Iran.
The reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s opening game, a 6-2 defeat by England, members of the Iran national team refused to sing their national anthem and some fans expressed their support for the protests.
The protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by vice squads in the capital, Tehran. They quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations demanding the fall of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri hail from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops were closed in the region on Thursday after calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not picking him for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later on Thursday, semi-official ILNA news agency reported, without elaborating.
The protests do not appear to be abating and mark one of the greatest challenges facing Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces used live ammunition and birdshots at protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence captured on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 arrested since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday voted to condemn the crackdown and set up an independent fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of abuse, particularly against women and children.
Authorities have blamed hostile foreign powers for the unrest without providing evidence and say separatists and other armed groups attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security forces were killed, while state media reported a higher number.
The protesters say they are fed up with decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code for women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the obligatory Islamic headscarf to express their opposition to clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively agitate against their own team at the World Cup, associating them with those in power they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist the national team, which includes players who have taken to social media to show solidarity with the protests, is representing the people of the country.
The team’s star striker Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken out online about the protests, was on the bench during the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former football stars were arrested for expressing their support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes were also drawn into the fight.
Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in an international competition in South Korea in October without the mandatory headscarf, a move widely seen as showing his support for the protests. When she returned to Iran, she was welcomed like a hero by the protesters, although in an interview that may have been given under duress, she told state media the move was “unintentional”.
Earlier this month, the Iranian Football Federation threatened to fine players from its beach soccer team after it beat Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by mimicking a protester who cut off her hair.