Iran’s soccer stars are used to the love and admiration of football fans throughout the country. But returning the love of the people has cost them dear. The one they called “the magician”, Ali Karimi, has had his properties confiscated by security forces and his statue torn down. “The monarch”, Ali Daei, has had his passport confiscated and is being prevented from leaving the country. Their offence? Supporting the people’s protests.
A growing number of footballers and other athletes have been voicing their support through their social media accounts, many of them with millions of followers. This has posed a challenge to the Islamic Republic, whose officials are blaming them for "fanning the flames of the riots".
The head of Iran's judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, declared that those who became famous "thanks to the support" of the Islamic Republic have "joined the enemy."
Security services have tried to restrict public access to social media and even the internet itself. Since their efforts have been unsuccessful, the authorities have turned to trying to silence the celebrities at source, warning them they will "take action" against them.
For Khamenei, footballers and celebrities have only two categories. They are either "dignified" or "disgraceful". There is nothing in between.
Those branded “disgraceful” include the legendary "magician", Ali Karimi, who delighted Iranians throughout his career. People would dance on the streets when he scored for the national football team or his club, Persepolis. The list of the “dignified” includes Mehdi Torabi, who declined to wear a black wristband in solidarity with the people in a match this weekend while all of his teammates had one, and Mehdi Taremi, who sends love letter to the supreme leader over his Instagram account.
"They are not important,” said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iranian celebrities who have shown public support for the protesters, in his first public statement since the protests first broke out more than two weeks ago. “We should not care what they say.”
But for intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic, they are in fact important and their social media accounts are frightening.
A few hours after Khamenei’s remarks, Rasool Khadem, a former world wrestling champion, defended celebrities' support for the protesters.
"We should be happy that our national sports heroes are standing by people's problems and protests," he wrote on Instagram. "They are fulfilling their national duty and social responsibility. By doing this, they carry a heavy burden. They have reached this position with the financial and emotional support of these people."
As the street protests continue and celebrities become emboldened to make stronger comments of support, officials have tightened the screws on those who speak out.
Some have been summonsed to intelligence offices to answer questions regarding their posts on social media, and some have been banned from leaving Iran.
At least one is in police custody. Hossein Mahini, a former player for the Tehran team Perspolis, was arrested last week and has been in police custody since. He was arrested for "encouraging mass protests", according to state media. Mahini has voiced solidarity and support for the protesters through his social media accounts.
A few days before Mahini’s arrest, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) called for the arrest of Ali Karimi. IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency had urged police in Tehran to deal with what they called "rabble-rousers".
Karimi, 43, captained Iran's national team as well as Persepolis and IsteelAzeen clubs. He scored 127 goals in a glittering 18-year career that saw him winning the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. He was Asian Footballer of the Year in 2004.
After the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, Karimi wrote to his more than 400,000 followers on Twitter: “A homeland is waiting for you. Do not let innocent blood be shed.”
He also wrote of top officials' children on Instagram: "Their children leave [the country], our children die.”
Pictures published last week showed Karimi’s house in Lavasan, Tehran, sealed off on the orders of a local prosecutor. Other properties owned by Karimi have reportedly been confiscated by the government.
The authorities’ response has also included tearing down a statue of him in his hometown Karaj. Protesters responded by spraying his name on the empty plinth.
“The prosecutor-general should enter the case of Karimi’s accusations against the entire system and the lies he spreads on social media,” Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, a member of the Iranian parliament, told state media.
Another target was the legendary footballer and national hero, Ali Daei, 53, known as the "monarch" (Shahriyar in Persian) of Iranian soccer. For years he retained the title of all-time men's leading international scorer with 109 goals, until Manchester United and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo broke his record last year. Security services confiscated Daei’s passport upon his arrival from Istanbul. He is banned from leaving the country.
"My homeland is Iran. That means my family, my father and mother, my daughters and fellow countrymen are my brothers and sisters. I will surely stay with them forever," Daei had posted on his Instagram account, with almost ten million followers, after the death of Mahsa Amini. "Instead of repression, violence and arresting the Iranian people, solve their problems."
Kaveh Rezaei, a striker of the Tractor club, was arrested by the intelligence officers on Saturday in Tabriz.
Persepolis players, who all entered the field with black wristbands, were called to the IRGC Intelligence Department on Monday to explain their actions.
In a bid to quash players’ protests on the field, matches during the seventh week of Iran’s Premier League will be held without spectators.
"I don't have any injured players, but three players of my team were arrested, and they are probably injured by now," Reza Mohajeri, the head coach of Naft Masjid Suleiman, said on Friday before his team's match against Nasaji Mazandaran.
Off the pitch, Adel Ferdosipour, the former host of “90”, a prime-time TV soccer show, is the latest celebrity to voice his support for the protesters.
"Why do you behave with these noble students in such a cruel way," he wrote on his Instagram after security forces stormed Sharif University campus in the capital. "How do you expect them to build Iran after this?"
Ferdosipour, who lost his TV show for "not being in the orbit" of state TV, has called on security forces to immediately release the arrested students.
Footballer Mehdi Torabi Foiled by Goalkeeper in Bid to Praise Khamenei
Mehdi Torabi, a rarity among footballers in recent days, with his outspoken support for the Supreme Leader, wanted to score a goal and give it like a gift to Iran’s supreme leader – but the goalkeeper ruined it.
Torabi, a striker for Tehran's Perspolis football club, has a history of giving gifts to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from the field when people are protesting in the streets against him.
On a Saturday match against the Tractor football club, when all of his teammates showed up with black wristbands in solidarity with the rising number of people killed in the past two weeks of mass protests, Torabi’s wrist was bare.
He was also the only player who did not take part in the moment of silence to show respect for the dead, a source told IranWire.
"He had a slogan written under his football shirt. He was hoping to lift his shirt up if he scored a goal," a current player of the club who was in Azadi stadium, in Iran’s capital city of Tehran, told IranWire. "We only know that he wrote something in support of the leader. Again.”
Before the game kicked off, Mohammadi, a former Persepolis player and current coach, appointed Jürgen Locadia as penalty shooter. The Dutch striker is the highest scorer for Persepolis so far this season.
At the 88-minute mark, the referee announced a penalty kick for Persepolis, the team also known as the Reds of the Capital. The decision was later labelled "suspicious" and even Paran Rafat, a former striker for the Reds, said, "Persepolis does not need such penalties.”
The Tractor club was one goal up and that penalty kick could have changed the course of the game.
But Torabi was determined to be the one to give a gift to the supreme leader. He did not care about what his teammates were telling him about the pre-match decision, and he did not listen to his angry coach. He took the penalty and Ahmad Reza Akhbari, the Tractor goalkeeper, saved it.
"The team's penalty shooter was someone else, but Mehdi wanted to be happy in front of the cameras and show the slogan on his shirt. But he didn’t even score the penalty,” his teammate said.
The team’s angry manager immediately kicked him off the field and sent on a substitute in his place. But his teammate told IranWire that the coach would have taken him off even if he had managed to score.
Torabi was already upset hours before the match officially started, a member of the team told IranWire. He was avoiding talking to his teammates and was probably only thinking about how to send a message to the supreme leader.
However, no one is even sure if Khamenei follows the Iranian premier league.
Six hours before the match, Persepolis players warned the club's managers that they would refuse to play until security forces had released Hossein Mahini, a former player of the same club who was arrested last week for using social media to voice his support for the protests.
But for Torabi, this didn’t make any sense. He even voiced his opposition to a suggested strike by the league's players. He told his teammates that he would show up alone in the stadium if no one else wanted to come.
Persepolis coach Mohammadi told reporters that he was not in the mood to talk after the match because the "people of Iran are not happy."
Torabi was also the only player who did not condemn footballer Hassan Abbassi's comments a few days before the match, when he spoke about the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old woman died in police custody after the morality police arrested her for not wearing the hijab correctly.
In a controversial speech, Abbassi, an ideologist of the Islamic Republic, said that "footballers are defending Mahsa Amini because they want to see their wives without hijab."
In 2019, Torabi lifted his shirt up with a message of support to the government when a deadly protest was taking place after the government raised fuel prices.
The message on his shirt read: "The only way to save the country is to obey the leadership.” He later said in a press conference: "This message comes from my heart. No one is higher than the leadership for me."
Torabi has a 90 billion Rial ($300,000) contract for this season. He also receives a separate, tax-free figure from Persepolis for every goal or assist, and for every win in the league, the FA Cup and the Asian Champions League.
Perspolis, like Esteghlal, Sepahan and many other clubs, are run using state funds.
IranWire has contracted FIFA for a comment about the ongoing crackdown on Iranian footballers but has yet to receive a response.