On Tuesday, June 28, the Iranian regime’s state media reported that Esteghlal Tehran Football Club’s Captain Voria Ghafouri was dismissed from the club. The media avoided mentioning the reason; however, in an interview, Ghafouri said that the club’s owners did not extend his contract.

Esteghlal FC won the 2021-2022 national league thanks to captain Ghafouri’s skill and leadership, so the club’s refusal to offer a new contract with the beloved captain shocked the club’s fans. Esteghlal FC’s acting CEO Mostafa Ajorlu, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer, has brazenly refused to extend Ghafouri’s contract or offer a new one.

Esteghlal Fans Trend #VoriaGhafouri on Twitter and Instagram

This impromptu departure provoked outrage and regret among Ghafouri and the club’s fans, leading them to rally outside the club on June 29 in support of their beloved captain. They also showed their sympathy and solidarity with Ghafouri by posting the hashtags, #VoriaGhafouri, #Voria_is_not_alone, and #Voria_will_not_be_removed on Twitter and Instagram.

Ghafouri has repeatedly supported the people’s protests and grievances throughout his career. Previously, he publicly protested the authorities’ misogynist treatment of Sahar Khodadadi, who had disguised herself as a man in order to attend a soccer match in Azadi Stadium to watch the Esteghlal match in person.

Referred to as the ‘Blue Girl’, Khodadadi was detained and jailed for a couple of days following the incident. Tehran’s Revolutionary Court later sentenced her to six months in prison for breaching the regime’s misogynistic rule. In response, Khodadadi set herself ablaze outside the court, protesting the unfair punishment, and died from her injuries several days later in hospital.

The event severely shook Iran and the international community, arousing condemnation by renowned sports bodies, including prominent European soccer clubs. FIFA also decried Tehran, calling on the authorities to ensure the presence of female spectators at stadiums.

Ghafouri took a meaningful step in supporting Iranian women and girls, providing iconic T-shirts in memory of the ‘Blue Girl’ that was delivered to Esteghlal players to wear before their contest with Naft-e Masjid Suleyman FC in September 2019.

In March 2021, authorities again prevented female spectators from watching a World Cup qualifying game of Iran vs. Lebanon in Mashhad, northeastern Iran. Anti-riot forces mercilessly attacked women and dispersed them by firing teargas into the crowd and spraying pepper on the supporters, despite the government’s prior guarantees to FIFA about allowing women to see the game in person and selling dozens of tickets.

Ghafouri denounced the government’s crackdown on defenseless female fans and their children, describing it as “disgraceful.” On his Instagram account, he wrote, “As a soccer player, I’ve indeed become humiliated when I play in an era when our mothers and sisters are prohibited from entering stadiums.”

The mullahs ruling Iran have a notorious record in purging popular athletes and symbols of sportsmanship from the country’s sports. In August 2018, they detained national wrestler Navid Afkari for participating in peaceful protests. Interrogators savagely tortured him and his brothers and filed their torture-tainted confessions as evidence in Shiraz revolutionary court. The mullahs finally hanged Navid in September 2020 despite international appeals and calls to spare his life.

In the 1980s, the Iranian regime executed Habib Khabiri, the Iranian Men’s National Soccer Team captain, and Foruzan Abdi, an Iran Women’s National Volleyball Team member, due to their unwavering support of the opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Read More: Habib Khabiri, Captain of Iran National Soccer Team