Iran has arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team for his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over the team as it competes in the World Cup before a global audience.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported Thursday that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and making anti-government propaganda.”
Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career, objecting to the long-standing ban on women spectators at men’s soccer matches, as well as the policy Iran’s confrontational exterior, which has led to paralyzing Western sanctions.
Most recently, he expressed sympathy 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, she has also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdish region.
Reports 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 their national anthem, and some fans protested.
The protests began with the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the moral police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly turned into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where Amini was from, has seen particularly intense protests and a deadly crackdown by security forces.
Ghafouri, who is also a member of Iran’s Kurdish minority, has criticized government policies in the past. Officials have not said whether that was a factor in not choosing 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. The authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing any evidence.
The protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women.