FIFA World Cup in Qatar: Voria Ghafuri arrested for protest in Iran, display of team anthem goes viral

Iran has arrested a former Kurdish-born international footballer who has strongly supported the protests that have rocked the country since September, news agencies report.

Fars news agency reported that Voriya Ghafuri, an outspoken figure who had played for Iran 28 times until 2019, was arrested after training with the club on charges of spreading “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic.

He is one of the most notorious figures arrested in the widespread crackdown on protests amid scrutiny of the national team’s performance at the World Cup in Qatar.

The team refrained from singing the anthem in his first match against England on Monday.

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Led by captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Iranian players stood impassively to the sound of their national anthem ahead of the tournament’s opening match against England in the Qatari capital Doha. The team’s daring performance earned praise around the world.

But there is also growing concern about the extent of government repression in Iran’s western Kurdish regions, where Gafuri is from. Human rights groups say dozens of people have been killed in the past week alone.

Gafuri was detained after training with his club Foolad Khuzestan on charges of “tarnishing the reputation of the national team and spreading propaganda against the state,” Fars news agency reported.

Norwegian-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw also said he was arrested after posting a photo of the player in traditional Kurdish clothing.

Former Iranian international Ali Karimi, another vocal supporter of the protests, also posted the same photo of Ghafuri on his Twitter account in support of the player.

“To the venerable Voria,” he wrote.

Ghafuri, 35, was listed in Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad but was not included in the final squad for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.

Hailing from the Kurdish city of Sanandaj in western Iran, Ghafuri posted a picture of himself wearing traditional Kurdish clothing on Instagram.

Iran has seen more than two months of demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Aminiherself of Kurdish descent, after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women.

The protests grew into a broad movement against the ruling theocracy. Ghafuri, on his social media accounts, strongly supported the protests and also reportedly visited Kurdish-populated areas of Iran to express solidarity with the families of the victims of the crackdown.

He received particular praise for visiting the young daughter of a woman killed during the protests and giving her a tablet.

“Voria stood behind his people and paid the price. We must also support him and not let him be alone,” US dissident Masih Alinejad tweeted.

Ghafuri was previously the captain of top Iranian club Esteghlal before his contract was terminated and he moved to Fulad Khuzestan.

Many fans have speculated that the end of his career with Esteghlal was revenge for speaking out in support of earlier protests that erupted this summer. Others argued that at 30, Gafuri was already too old for the Iranian top division.

Gafuri is not the first major sports personality to suffer repression.

International footballer Hossein Mahini was arrested in October for supporting the protests but later released.

The international side drew applause from abroad for refusing to sing the national anthem at Monday’s match.

But many Iranians criticized the team for meeting with President Ebrahim Raisi shortly before leaving for Qatar during raging protests.

“They are players, not our enemies,” Iranian Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week in response to anger.

After losing 6-2 to England, Team Melli’s next match will take place on Friday against Wales.

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Originally published as The football player was arrested for participating in a protest before the World Cup in Qatar