Iran releases soccer players ahead of game against US

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that two former national football team members arrested this month in connection with nationwide protests have been released on bail.

The announcement came hours before Iran was set to face the US at the World Cup in a match that authorities are heavily promoting as they grapple with nationwide protests well into their third month.

Parviz Boroumand, a retired goalkeeper, was arrested almost two weeks ago on charges of taking part in protests in the capital Tehran and charged with vandalizing property. Voria Ghafouri was arrested last week for “insulting the national football team and propaganda against the government,” according to state media. The judiciary announced their release on Tuesday without elaborating.

Ghafouri, who still plays for a local club but was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s football matches and to Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.

More recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s vice squad sparked the latest protests. He also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s Western Kurdistan region.

Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not choosing him for the national team.

The latest protests mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces unleashed live ammunition and bird shots on the protesters, beating and arresting them, much of the violence being videotaped. At least 452 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 arrested since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the protests.

Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence. Justice says it has released more than 1,000 detainees in recent days. The protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code for women.

Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.

Some Iranians oppose their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, made up of players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people. Billboards have appeared all over the capital Tehran promoting the team.

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