DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran arrested a former senior member of its national soccer team on Thursday over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have overshadowed their World Cup rivals.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Furiya Ghafouri was arrested on charges of “insulting the national soccer team and propaganda against the government.”
Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s soccer matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which led to heavy 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 recent protests.. In recent days he has also called for an end to the violent repression of protests In the Kurdistan region, western Iran.
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 against England, members of the Iranian national team refrained from singing along to their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests..
Protests flared after the September 16 killing of Mohsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested by the morality police in the capital, Tehran. It 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 hail, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops in the area were closed on Thursday after calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not stated whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in his failure to be selected for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvas. The semi-official ILNA news agency reported that the club’s president, Hamid Reza Qorshbi, submitted his resignation later on Thursday, without elaborating.
The protests show no sign of abating and represent 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 fired live ammunition and shot protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence recorded 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.
On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to condemn the crackdown and the establishment of an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged violations, particularly against women and children.
Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and say separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media has reported a higher death toll.
The protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political oppression, including strict dress codes imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their disapproval of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are actively rooting against their World Cup team, associating it with referees 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 people of the country.
The team’s star player, Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the online protests, was on the bench during the opening match. In addition to Ghafouri, two former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes also got involved in the struggle.
Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi will compete without the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, in a move widely seen as expressing support for the protests. You’ve received a hero’s welcome of protesters upon their return to Iran, even as she told state media the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been conducted under duress.
Earlier this month, the Iranian Football Federation threatened to punish the players of the beach soccer team after it beat Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. A female player celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a protester cutting her hair.