One of the country's most famous footballers was arrested on Thursday by Iranian security forces, accusing him of spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic and trying to undermine the national World Cup team.
Voria Ghafouri, once a captain of the Tehran club Esteghlal, has been outspoken in his defence of Iranian Kurds, telling the government on social media to stop killing Kurdish people. He has previously been arrested for criticising the former Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
Iran is due to play Wales on Friday. The Iranian team has already been embroiled in controversy because of the failure to sing the national anthem before its game against England, and Ghafouri's arrest is likely to be seen as a warning to the players not to repeat their protests.
He was arrested after a training session with his club, Foolad Khuzestan, on charges of tarnishing the reputation of the national team and spreading propaganda against the state, the Fars new agency said.
Other agencies said he was charged with insulting and intending to destroy the national football team and speaking against the regime ministers in recent days. Ghafouri was accused of being a Kurdish separatist, but he said he would give his life for Iran. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said earlier this year that some people benefit from the country's peace and security, enjoy their favourite sports and enjoy their favourite sports, bite the hand that feeds them, a reference many thought was to Ghafouri.
The 35-year-old footballer was a member of Iran's 2018 World Cup squad but was surprisingly not named in the final lineup for this year s World Cup in Qatar.
Ghafouri, who was originally from the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj in western Iran, had posted a photo on Instagram of himself in traditional Kurdish dress in the mountains of Kurdistan, but is a cult hero beyond Iran's north-west. Sanandaj had endured some of the most violent crackdowns in the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, and Ghafouri, who had visited some of the injured in the protests in Mahabad.
In 2019 he distributed blue jerseys in honor of Sahar Khodayari, a woman who self-immolated after being sentenced to prison for attempting to watch an Esteghlal match at Azadi stadium. After another incident of violence against female football fans in 2021, Ghafouri wrote on Instagram: "I have become humiliated when I play in an era in which my mothers and sisters are not allowed to enter stadiums. As punishment for speaking out, many fans suggested that his career at Esteghlal, a championship winning team, was cut short in June. Others argued that Ghafouri was already too old for the Iranian top flight in his mid-30s.
He recently tweeted: Stop killing Kurdish people! Killing Kurds is the equivalent of killing Iran. If you are indifferent to the killing of people, you are not an Iranian and you are not even a human being. All tribes are from Iran.