DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran has arrested a prominent former member of the national soccer team for criticizing the government as it battles nationwide protests that have overshadowed its World Cup bid.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and spreading anti-government propaganda”.
Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has openly criticized the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He protested the long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s soccer matches, as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has undermined Western sanctions.
Read more: Iran’s World Cup team remained silent during the playing of the National Anthem
He recently offered his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death sparked recent protests while in custody of Iran’s morality police. In recent days, he has also called for an end to the violent suppression of protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.
News of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. During Iran’s 6-2 opening match against England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing their national anthem and some fans supported the protests.
Protests were ignited by the murder of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested by moral police in the capital Tehran on September 16. They quickly turned into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, home to both Amin and Gafuri, was the epicenter of the protests. Shops in the region were closed on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iran’s officials have not made a statement on whether Ghafouri’s activism caused him not to be selected for the national team. He plays for Khuzestan Foolad in southwestern Ahwaz.
The protests show no signs of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges for Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights activists say security forces used live bullets and live ammunition against protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, much of the violence captured on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Watch in Iran, which monitors the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council voted Thursday to condemn the crackdown and establish an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those against women and children.
Read more: Iran has a long history of protest and activism
Authorities blame 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 say the death toll is much higher.
Protesters say they are fed up with decades of social and political repression, including strict dress codes for women. Young women have taken a leading role in the protests, stripping off the mandatory Islamic hijab to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively campaign against their team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have taken to social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people.
The star striker of the team, Sardar Azmun, who voiced the protests online, sat on the bench in the opening match. Apart from Ghafouri, two other former football stars were arrested for supporting the protests.
Read more: Tired and thirsty, World Cup fans are trying to find joy in a complicated tournament
Other Iranian athletes were also involved in the fight.
Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, which was seen as a show of support for the protests. He was given a hero’s welcome by protesters upon his return to Iran, even though he said the move was “deliberate” in an interview that could be given under pressure to state media.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish the players of its beach soccer team after they defeated Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. After one of the players scored a goal, a woman celebrated by imitating a protester cutting her hair.
More must read TIME