DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran on Thursday arrested a prominent former member of its national football team for criticizing the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its competition at the World Cup.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri had been 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 a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He opposed the longstanding ban on female spectators at men’s football matches as well as Iran’s divisive foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
More 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, he has also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in the West Kurdistan region of Iran.
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 expressed support for the protests.
The protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by morality police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly escalated into nationwide protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The Kurdish region in the west of the country, where Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops were closed in the area on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials did not say whether Ghafouri’s activism 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 signs of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces used raging live ammunition and birdfire on protesters, as well as beat and arrest them, with much of the violence being recorded 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 monitors protests.
The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn the crackdown and 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 say separatists and other armed groups attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel were 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, removing the compulsory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are actively rooting against their own team at the World Cup, associating it with leaders they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the people of the country.
The team’s star striker Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken out about the protests online, was on the bench in the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former football stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes have also been drawn into wrestling.
Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move widely seen as expressing her support for the protests. She was greeted as a hero by protesters upon her return to Iran, even as she told state media the decision was “unintentional” in an interview that could have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, the Iranian Football Federation threatened to punish players from its beach soccer team after beating Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a protester cutting her hair.
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