Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its competition at the World Cup.

The semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government.”

Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a longstanding ban on women spectators at men’s soccer matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.

More recently, he expressed sympathy for the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police ignited the latest protests. In recent days he also called for an end to a violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.

The reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. At Iran’s opening match, a 6-2 loss to England, the members of the Iranian national team declined to sing along to their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.

The protests were ignited by the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the morality police in the capital, Tehran. They rapidly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicentre of the protests. Shops were closed in the region on Thursday following calls for a general strike.

Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not choosing him for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.

French sports minister encourages protest

France’s sports minister has encouraged her country’s World Cup team to make a symbolic gesture in support of human rights, after FIFA’s clampdown on the “One Love” armband.

“Is there still a way our French team can continue to express its commitment to human rights? The answer is yes,” Amelie Oudea-Castera told French television channel Public Senat. “The Germans showed it.”

Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opening World Cup match on Wednesday. The gesture was a response to FIFA’s effective nixing of seven European teams’ plans to wear armbands that were seen as a rebuke to host nation Qatar and its human rights record.

French players will be “free to express themselves,” in the coming weeks, Oudea-Castera said. “They share these values too … and it’s important that they represent them.”

Germany’s soccer players cover their mouth before their World Cup match against Japan, as a form of protest against the banning of the rainbow armband many captains wanted to wear at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar to support of LGBTQ+ community. (Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press)

The French team released a statement before flying to Qatar, saying the players supported NGO’s working to protect human rights and that all the players and staff members had made a collective donation toward them.

“The players have already made a statement saying how we feel,” France midfielder Matteo Guendouzi said Thursday in Qatar. “We’re not indifferent about this situation. But we’re here to play football and enjoy ourselves on the field.”

Forward Marcus Thuram said he respected what the Germans did.

“As Matteo said we have done something [with a donation],” Thuram said. “If they think they defended a good cause then that’s a good thing.”

Defending champion France beat Australia 4-1 in its first World Cup match on Tuesday. The team plays its next Group D match Saturday against Denmark.

Israel-Palestine conflict comes to Qatar

It was uncharted territory for the Israeli journalist. Wandering through the rustic outdoor marketplace in Doha before the start of the World Cup, he zeroed in on a Qatari man in his traditional headdress and white flowing robe and asked for an interview.

“Which channel?” the Qatari asked. The journalist replied he was from Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.

The Qatari was stunned. “Where?”

“Israel,” the journalist repeated. A split-second later, the interview was over.

The exchange ricocheted around social media, reflecting the latest political flash point at the first World Cup in the Arab world — never mind that neither Israeli nor Palestinian national teams are competing in the tournament.

Controversy has followed Israelis and Palestinians pouring into Doha, revealing just how entrenched and emotive their violent century-old conflict remains, including Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state.

Palestinians shared footage of the Doha encounter between the Qatari man and the Israeli journalist, along with other clips of Palestinians and Qataris angrily confronting Israeli reporters live on TV. They viewed it as proof that although Qatar has permitted Israelis to fly directly to Doha and receive consular support for the first time in history, the conservative Muslim emirate has no intention of cozying up to Israel.

Israel’s Channel 13 sports reporter, Tal Shorrer, said he has been shoved, insulted and accosted by Palestinians and other Arab fans during his live reports from the tournament.

“You are killing babies!” a few Arab fans yelled as they rammed into him during a broadcast this week.

Qatari media meanwhile has published some such videos with the caption: “No to normalization.” Officials in Qatar, with their history of public support to Palestinians, have insisted the temporary opening to Israelis was purely to comply with FIFA hosting requirements — not a step to normalizing ties like neighbouring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates did in 2020. Qatar has warned a spike in violence in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip would derail the arrangement.

Nonetheless, thousands of Israeli soccer fans are expected to descend on Doha for the World Cup, diplomats say, including some on 10 direct flights planned over the next month.





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