DUBAI, UAE – Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday for his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over his competition at the World Cup.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and propaganda against the government”.
Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He has opposed a longstanding ban on female spectators at men’s soccer matches, as well as Iran’s conflicted foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
More recently, he expressed condolences for the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked the latest protests. In recent days he has also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.
News of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s opening match, a 6–2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along with their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.
The protests were sparked by the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the morality police in the capital Tehran. They quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops were closed on Thursday in the region following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials did not say 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 protests show no sign of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges for Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces used live ammunition and bird shot on 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 detained since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn the crackdown and to create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those committed against women and children.
Authorities blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and said separatists and other armed groups attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media reported a higher toll.
Protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women played a prominent role in the protests, taking off the obligatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are actively rooting against their team at the World Cup, associating them with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people.
The team’s striker, Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken out about the online protests, was on the bench during the opening match. Besides Ghafouri, two other former football stars were arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes have also been involved in the fight.
Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move widely seen as an expression of support for the protests. He received a heroic welcome from protesters upon his return to Iran, though he told state media the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been done under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish players on its beach soccer team after they defeated Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a protester cutting her hair.