On June 28, Iranian media outlets reported that Voria Ghafouri, the captain of Esteghlal FC, had not had his contract renewed. The CEO of Esteghlal said the decision had been taken by Ricardo Sá Pinto, the club’s new Portuguese manager, who had officially started work just the week before.
Some Esteghlal fans were less than impressed, claiming the decision was political rather than sports-related and it was the CEO himself – an IRGC commander named Mostafa Ajorloo – who had not wanted Ghafouri on the team. A Persian-language hashtag, “Voria_is_not_alone”, began trending on Twitter shortly afterward, and plans were published for a protest in front of the club’s headquarters in Tehran.
Hours later, unconfirmed rumors began to spread that the management were looking at re-hiring Ghafouri as captain. No update has been published on the affair since then.
A Rare, Socially Engaged Football Star
Voria Ghafouri is unusual among top-tier athletes in that he has been vocal on societal and civil rights-related issues in Iran, and often expresses himself in terms that are less than welcome to the regime. The previous generation of footballers included some similar figures, such as Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, both of whom were eventually driven out of Iran’s football scene.
In 2018, after a number of girls died in a fire at a private girls’ preschool and primary in the southeastern city of Zahedan, Ghafouri wrote on social media: “Will the people who are responsible for the death of students and the fire at school be put on trial?”
The following year, when the price of gold and foreign currency soared in Iran, he wrote: “The Republic is good! ‘Islamic’ is good! Iran is the best! Then why the Iranian people are poor and have so many problems.”
When a number of environmentalists were sentenced in 2020 on charges that included “corruption on earth” and “collaborating with a hostile government [the US]”, Ghafouri wrote: “We must shed tears of blood for this country.” For the past four years he has also repeatedly spoken out against the shooting of kolbars on the Kurdistan border, writing on one occasion: “This is Kurdistan, where the men must become kolbars [border couriers] to get food so that they, their wives and their children will not go hungry – but they pay for it with their lives.”
Elsewhere, Ghafouri has called for the individuals within the IRGC responsible for the Flight 752 disaster to be put on trial, and decried the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari. Seemingly summing up his own stance as well as that of others, he tweeted: “Thinking, ideas and freedom cannot be held captive, not by prison and not by execution. Human nature has demands that can never be extinguished.”
Notably, Ghafouri also intervened after the death of Sahar Khodayari, a young Esteghlal fan known as the “Blue Girl”. Khodayari was arrested in 2019 after trying to sneak into a match a Azadi Stadium, where women and girls are banned from watching matches. She later set herself on fire in front of the court where she was due to be sentenced and died from her injuries.
Unlike many colleagues who shied away from referring to the tragedy in public, Ghafouri called on his team to keep her memory alive, and handed out T-shirts with the “Blue Girl” on them for his team to wear. He wrote of the incident: “We rebuke our predecessors, but pay no attention to the fact that women are not allowed into stadiums in our own present.
“This wrong done will be a good reason for future generations to reprimand us. It was so painful to hear the news that a young woman attempted suicide after she got into trouble because she wanted to go into the stadium. I wish we could unite and give women the right to enter football stadiums in a respectable way.”
Of course, statements like these did not go unnoticed. In February 2019, in an implicit address to Ali Karimi and Voria Ghafouri, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech: “I warn the athletes that benefit from the country’s security and go about their business and sports, but who bite the hand that feeds them, that they must not forget how this security has been won.”
The Compromised CEO (and his Intermediary)
Mostafa Ajorloo, the IRGC commander and CEO of Esteghlal FC, is one the Guards’ most ideologically extreme officers to hold a parallel position in Iranian sports. Since the late 1990s his name has come up time and again in relation to corruption scandals, notably those linked to infamous ex-Mayor of Tehran (and now Speaker of Parliament) Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. They include a jarring case that came to light in 2017, in which it emerged that 1.1 million square meters of government-owned property had been quietly flogged to a number of officials at cut prices.
Ajorloo has a long history of making political interventions in his second job. In 2010 he was made CEO of the Steel Azin Football Club by the then-owner Hossein Hedayati (also, as it happens, a figure widely accused of corruption). That summer Ajorloo fired the team captain, Ali Karimi, for breaking fast during Ramadan as he had drunk some water while training. He then publicly accused Karimi of being a “monafegh” or “hypocrite”, a term notoriously used by Khomeinists to describe hidden enemies of the regime and/or the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK).
Ajorloo held down the role of CEO of Tabriz Tractor Sazi FC between 2016 and 2018. On June 7, 2016, he cancelled a two-year contract with Varazdat Haroyan, a star of the Armenian national football team, one day after it was signed. “I came to Tabriz to unite the dear Azeris [Turkish-speaking Iranians who live in the northwestern provinces],” he said in an explanatory statement. “I strongly believe that an Armenian player joining the team could threaten unity between the Turks.”
In recent years Mostafa Ajorloo’s nephew Saeed Ajorloo has worked alongside him overseeing the running of different Iranian football clubs. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Iran Pas News Agency (IPNA), a sports news agency created by his uncle in the early 2000s and funded by the police. Then in 2005, when Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was elected as mayor of Tehran and Ajorloo was made the head of Tehran Municipality’s Sports Organization, Saeed Ajorloo was awarded the plum role of editor-in-chief of Tehran’s Hamshahri Sports newspaper.
In the summer of 2009, Mosalas, a new “political and analytical” weekly, appeared on newsstands across Iran. It was published by Mostafa Ajorloo and edited by his nephew. The weekly, unsurprisingly, proved to be an extreme, principalist loudspeaker for Ghalibaf and allies.
Recently a picture of Saeed Ajorloo stood next to Ricardo Sá Pinto did the rounds online. It has been held up by some as proof that Saeed is acting as a middleman for his uncle, who had previously claimed his “trusted and plenipotentiary representative” was engaged in negotiations with “various coaches”. The pair are widely assumed to have had a decisive say over Voria Ghafari’s contract and in the circumstances, his ousting comes as little surprise.