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Iran arrests soccer’s Voria Ghafouri amid scrutiny of World Cup team

Iranian soccer player Voria Ghafouri, right, vies for the ball during a 2019 match in Dubai. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

A prominent Iranian soccer player was arrested Thursday on charges that included destroying the reputation of the country’s national team, which is competing in the World Cup, state-linked Iranian media outlets reported Thursday.

The player, Voria Ghafouri, is a former member of Iran’s national squad and a frequent critic of the government. His arrest occurred at a moment in which Iranian soccer players are under close scrutiny for their statements about a nationwide uprising in Iran that has continued for months.

Iran’s World Cup team silently nods to protests at home

Iran’s national team, during a match against England on Monday, declined to sing during the playing of the country’s national anthem, in what was widely seen as a silent acknowledgment of the protests. Iran’s national broadcaster showed select images of spectators cheering for Iran during the match but not the political signs carried by some.

Protest in Iran began in September after a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody. The uprising against Iran’s clerical leadership has spread across the country and sparked a fierce and deadly crackdown, including in ethnic Kurdish areas, where human rights groups say dozens of people have been killed in recent days.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in a vote on Thursday launched an investigation into alleged rights violations in Iran’s response to the protest movement. “Today’s session leaves no doubt that the HRC’s membership recognizes the gravity of the situation in Iran, and the fact-finding mission established today will help ensure that those engaged in the ongoing violent suppression of Iranian people are identified and their actions documented,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

Rights groups say Iran is escalating crackdown in Kurdish areas

Ghafouri, who is Kurdish, has criticized government officials on social media in the past, and recently posted messages on Twitter condemning the killing of Kurds. Iranian news reports did not specify the reasons for his arrest but said the charges included “spreading propaganda against” the Islamic republic.

Fans of the Iranian national team in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21 spoke in favor of ongoing protests against Iran's regime. (Video: The Washington Post)

He has been called up to play several times over the last decade on the national team, and played for several Iranian club teams including Foolad Khuzestan, his current squad. ISNA, a semiofficial news agency, reported Thursday that Hamidreza Garshasbi, the CEO of the team, had resigned. It said the reason for his resignation has not been announced.

Even before the start of the World Cup, some Iranians had called for FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to ban the national team, known as Team Melli, as a sign of support for the protests. Others argued that Iran’s participation in the World Cup was a boon to the uprising: a high-profile event that provided players and spectators an opportunity to voice dissent, with international media watching.

Iran is set to play Wales on Friday.

World Cup in Qatar

USMNT: The United States faced England in its second World Cup game Friday. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving the United States feeling good about its performance but also leaving Group B wildly unsettled heading into Tuesday’s finales.

Political protest: The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement back home targeting its clerical leadership, and the tensions, inescapable and persistent, are spilling onto the field.

Perspective: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of cash are better. Read Sally Jenkins on the human rights controversy in Qatar.