DUBAI, United Arab Emirates. On Thursday, Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national football team for his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its World Cup rivalry.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voriya Gafuri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and making propaganda against the government.”
Gafuri, who was not selected to compete in the World Cup, has been openly critical of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a long-standing ban on female spectators from men’s soccer games, as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, 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 the Iranian vice police provoked the latest protests. In recent days, he has also called for an end violent crackdown on protests in western Kurdistan of Iran.
Reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s first match, lost 6-2 to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along to 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, who was arrested by the vice police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The epicenter of the protests was the western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Gafuri come from. Shops in the region were closed on Thursday due to calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials did not say if Gafuri’s activism was the reason he was not selected 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 represent one of the biggest challenges for Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Human rights groups say security forces fired live ammunition at protesters and shot birds, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence caught on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 have been detained since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the protests.
United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn the crackdown and establish an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged violations, especially 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 personnel have been killed, while state media reports more casualties.
Protesters say they are fed up with decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women took the lead in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their opposition to clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively cheer for their team at the World Cup, linking it to rulers they see as cruel and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protesters, represents the people of the country.
The team’s star striker Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken openly about the protests online, was on the bench during the first match. In addition to Gafuri, two other former football stars were arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes were also involved in the fight.
Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without the mandatory hijab at an international competition in South Korea in October in what is widely seen as a show of support for the protests. She received hero greeting from protesters upon her return to Iran, even though she told state media that the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, the Iranian football federation threatened to punish the players of its beach soccer team after it beat Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players celebrated the goal by imitating a protesting woman cutting her hair.