TEHRAN — Iranian officials have targeted Ali Karimi, a legendary and hugely popular former soccer player who spoke out in defense of Iran’s nationwide anti-government protests sparked by the Sept. 16 death of the Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, 22, in Tehran ‘morals police’ custody for violating hijab laws.
“The Attorney General should seize the file of Karimi’s accusations against the whole system and the lies he spreads on social networks”, underlined Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, deputy and member of the judicial commission of the Consultative Assembly Islam from Iran. In a interview with the Fars news agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, published on September 30, he called on the judiciary to bring Karimi “on trial”.
The 43-year-old former captain of Iran’s national football team has capitalized on his nearly 13 million followers on Instagram and Twitter to express his support for the protests in Iran and address the accusations leveled against him.
Last week, hard-line cleric and former Iranian parliament member Hamid Rasaee called for the seizure of Karimi’s property in Iran. Speaking to Iranian state television on September 25, he compared the athlete to the exiled Turkish football star hakan sukurwhose assets were confiscated for supporting Turkey’s failed 2015 coup, demanding the same for Karimi.
A day after the comments, images circulated on social media of barriers placed at the entrance to a villa, believed to have belonged to Karimi, in Lavasan, northeast of the capital Tehran. “Per the order of respected legal authorities, this property is sealed until further notice,” read a banner on the cement block, although a day later cranes were sighted lift the block Of the. Authorities have not commented on the decisions.
The Fars news agency claimed that initial discoveries indicate that Karimi had sold or handed over the majority of his properties before leaving Iran, without giving further details or providing evidence. Karimi lived in Iran until June 2022 before moving to Dubai, where he is currently stationed.
The football star wrote in reaction that ‘a house without land is worthless’ and that ‘I would sacrifice that for the people’, following news of the actions against the villa.
On September 28, photos circulated of a Karimi vandalized statue by strangers overnight in his hometown of Karaj.
Despite the Iranian authorities repeated threats against famous figures supporting the protests, Karimi posts his messages of solidarity, encouragement and condolences to the victims around the clock on his social media accounts. In one instance, he even shared a few tips for bypassing filtering amid internet restrictions aimed at crushing protests.
Recently, he defended his fellow footballer Hossein Mahini as “honourable”, after Iran’s official IRNA news agency on September 30 published the news of Mahini’s arrest for “encouraging riots” on social media platforms.
Many Iranian athletes have supported Karimi by sharing his stories or directly defending his positions, including the former captain of the Iranian national team Mehdi Mahdavikiaformer footballers Karim Bagheri and Voria Ghafuriand veteran wrestling champion Rasul Khadem. Fans admired his fierce criticism of authorities following a murder tower collapse in the Iranian city of Abadan in May with boldness and compassion. Karimi’s popularity on Instagram has grown significantly, from 9.4 million followers in August to almost 13 million at the end of September.
Often called the Asian Maradona and “the magician” for his skill on the ball and quick dribbling, Karimi has a history of professional honors and controversy. The attacking midfielder scored 38 goals in 126 appearances for the Iranian national team before retiring from his 18-year career in 2014. In 2004, he won the title of Asian Footballer of the Year. Furthermore, he played for Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 in 2005-2007 and 2011, respectively. His controversial remarks against corruption in football and symbolic gestures during matches saw him suspended or even expelled from the national team on a few occasions, although he was always called back soon after.
In a controversial gesture, he wore green wristbands, along with a group of teammates, during a World Cup qualifier against South Korea in July 2009. The gesture was interpreted as support for the team national to the presidential candidate. Mir Hossein Moussavi, who accused the Interior Ministry of manipulating the June 12 election in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The contested vote turned into unprecedented anti-government protests, known as the green movementnamed after the color of Moussavi’s campaign, which was met with deadly repression across Iran.