On Thursday, Iranian security forces arrested one of the country’s most famous soccer players, accusing him of spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic and seeking to undermine the World Cup national team.
Foria Ghafouri, a former member of the national soccer team and captain of the Esteghlal club in Tehran, has been outspoken in her defense of Iranian Kurds, asking the government on social media to stop killing Kurds. He was previously arrested for criticizing former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Iran is due to play Wales on Friday. The Iranian national team was already embroiled in controversy after failing to sing the national anthem before its match against England, and Ghafouri’s arrest is likely to be seen as a warning to the players not to repeat their protests.
The new Fars Agency said he was arrested after a training session with his club, Foolad Khuzestan, on charges of “defaming the national team and spreading propaganda against the state.”
Other agencies said he was accused of “insulting the national football team, intending to destroy it and speaking against the regime”.
Ministers in recent days accused Ghafuri of being a Kurdish separatist, but he replied that he would sacrifice his life for Iran. Earlier this year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Some people, who benefit from the country’s peace and security, and enjoy their favorite jobs and sports, bite the hand that feeds them,” a reference many thought to Ghafouri. .
The footballer, 35, was a member of Iran’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, but surprisingly he was not named in the final squad for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Ghafouri, originally from the Kurdish-inhabited city of Sanandaj in western Iran, posted a photo on Instagram of him wearing traditional Kurdish dress in the mountains of Kurdistan, but he is a cult hero outside of northwestern Iran. Sanandaj suffered some of the fiercest crackdowns in the protests following the killing of Mohsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, and Ghafouri visited some of those injured in the protests in Mahabad.
In 2019, he distributed blue shirts in honor of Sahar Khodayari, the woman who self-immolated after being sentenced to prison for trying to watch the Esteghlal match at Azadi Stadium. After another incident of violence against female soccer fans in 2021, Ghafouri wrote on Instagram: “As a soccer player, I am really offended when I play in an era when our mothers and sisters are banned from stadiums.”
Many fans suggested that his career with Esteghlal, the championship-winning team, was cut short in June as punishment for speaking out. Others have argued that in his mid-30s, Ghafouri was too old for the Iranian league.
And he recently tweeted: “Stop killing the Kurds!!!