Iran arrests soccer player for supporting protests, as World Cup team grapples with danger and defiance

A former Iranian national soccer player was arrested on Thursday for expressing solidarity with the protests sweeping Iran, as several members of the current national team also broke their silence to lend support.

Millions of Iranians have taken to streets in recent weeks to protest the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who'd been arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely. The nearly unprecedented wave of dissent against the Iranian regime, and in support of women's rights, has prompted a swift crackdown by the country's security forces. The response has resulted in the death of at least 83 people, activists told Reuters.

The crackdown has extended to soccer — in that Hossein Mahini, a World Cup veteran and longtime defender for Iran's top club, Persepolis, was reportedly detained for publicly supporting the protests; but also in that the current national team, according to players, was living under strict orders to stay silent.

Most of the two dozen players slated to represent their nation at the 2022 World Cup in November did stay silent last week, as they gathered for their final training camp ahead of the tournament. They played two games as the Iranian soccer federation (IFF), under pressure from the government, restricted media access; and as two spectators, demonstrating peacefully, were ejected from one match by police; and as cities burned back home.

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2013 file photo, Iran national team poses prior to the start the AFC Asian Cup 2015 qualifying soccer match between Lebanon and Iran in Beirut, Lebanon. Foreground from left: Amirhossein Sadeghi, Hossein Mahini, Reza Ghoochannejhad Nournia, Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahan Bakhsh and Masoud Shojaei. Background from left: Mehrdad Beitashour, Reza Haghighi, Jalal Hosseini, Mohammed Davari and Javad Nekonam.  (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)
Hossein Mahini (13, bottom row, second from left) was a member of Iran's team at the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

Sardar Azmoun, a star striker, broke the silence on Sunday in an Instagram post. "At worst, I’ll be dismissed from the national team; no problem," he wrote in Farsi, according to rough translations. "I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want. Shame on you for killing so easily; long live Iranian women."

Soon thereafter, the post was deleted. Later, an apology from Azmoun was posted, and silence was restored. Several players blacked out their Instagram profile pictures. But some Iranians, including those risking their lives in the streets, criticized the players for not taking a risk and speaking up.

When the players wore black jackets during the national anthem before their Tuesday game, some Western media interpreted it as a silent statement in solidarity with protesters. But one Iranian activist, who runs the @OpenStadiums Twitter account, told Yahoo Sports that "it was just their normal jacket." She didn't interpret it as solidarity; the "national team is very much under surveillance of the [Iranian security] forces and they won't let them specifically do that," she said. None of the players have spoken about it.

Iran players break silence, support women

When the training camp concluded, though, they began speaking. "The last few days in the national team camp have been really hard for us," defender Morteza Pouraliganji wrote.

"Hello, now it's time to write the things after finishing the camp that I really wanted to tell you," Azmoun wrote on Wednesday, alongside a picture of the Iranian women's volleyball team. "My heart really broke for Mahsa Amini," he wrote as part of a message expressing solidarity with Iranian women.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, another star forward, posted a black square and wrote, in part, according to an Instagram translation: "Due to camp conditions and rules regarding avoiding cyberspace, we were not allowed to operate. We are the soldiers of [the Iranian] people and we will always stand by our people. ... It is not too much to ask for their simplest human rights. These people should be treated with more dignity and respect."

Midfielder Saman Ghoddos, who was born in Sweden and now plays in England, wrote in Farsi and English: "As an Iranian who wasn’t raised in Iran, I am thrilled and suprised [sic] by the courage of the women of my country. These kind and brave people deserve the best life. And to have the right to all the social services in modern world. In the protesting times, police have responsibility to protect them especially women and kids and put them under their protection. These people haven’t committed anything bad. They just want their human rights which they want to see happen. Long live my dear Iran and its amazing people."

In a separate caption, Ghoddos wrote: "Rest in peace to everyone who lost their lives fighting for freedom. #MahsaAmini."

The biggest wave of social media posts, however, came Friday after news surfaced that Mahini, who played 23 games for the national team from 2011-17, had been arrested for "promot[ing] disorder and chaos," according to Iranian state media. His house had also reportedly been raided. More than a dozen current national team players posted pictures of Mahini, 36, to their Instagram stories.

"Now footballers see how the actual situation [is]," the OpenStadiums activist, who protects her identity to avoid retribution from Iranian authorities, told Yahoo Sports.

Many of the posts, though, have been measured, and have opened the players up to continued criticism. Alongside a soccer picture on Wednesday, two weeks after Amini's death, goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand wrote, vaguely: "The voice of the masses is the voice of God." One commenter asked him: "Did you wake up from sleep? How much is the World Cup worth to you? More than the lives of our own people?"

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2022, photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo, File)
In this Sept. 19 photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran. (AP Photo)

Calls to expel Iran from World Cup

Multiple players have tried to frame their national team endeavors as representative of the Iranian people. To many, though, they are inextricably linked to the government.

"The Iranian [soccer federation], run by ex-commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is an important ambassador of the Islamic Republic and is acting in line with the repressive regime," OpenStadiums wrote in a Friday open letter. "We do not believe this team represents us or our values as Iranian citizens any longer."

That letter, addressed to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, called on FIFA to expel Iran from the 2022 World Cup. It cited two FIFA statutes, one of which claims the global soccer governing body is "committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights."

The other states: "FIFA remains neutral in matters of politics and religion. Exceptions may be made with regard to matters affected by FIFA's statutory objectives."

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning. Iran is scheduled to open its World Cup campaign on Nov. 21 against England, and conclude Group B play on Nov. 29 against the United States.

Danger for Iranian athletes

Mahini's arrest is not the first time the Iranian regime has punished athletes for opposing it. Most infamously, wrestler Navid Afkari was sentenced to death and executed in 2020. He'd been accused, without proof, of killing a security guard during anti-government protests in 2018, and allegedly tortured into a confession.

The national soccer team also has a history of activism, though much of it has been suppressed. In 2009, several players wore green wristbands during a World Cup qualifier in apparent support of an opposition presidential candidate who was disputing the results of an election. They were subsequently "retired" from the national team, according to reports at the time, though a few later returned.

One of them, Ali Karimi, who played for Bayern Munich during his 18-year career, has been a prominent and vocal supporter of the current protests, and critic of the regime. State-affiliated media have called for his arrest. His house was seized by authorities earlier this week, but he is reportedly out of the country and safe.

Ali Daei, the most famous soccer player in Iran's history, whose international goalscoring record was only recently broken by Cristiano Ronaldo, has been another government critic. In an Instagram post earlier this week, he called on his country to, "instead of repression, violence and arresting the Iranian people, solve their problems."

On Saturday, according to reports, upon Daei's return to Iran from Turkey, Iranian security forces confiscated his passport.