Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have called for the arrest of a beloved national football icon known as the "Asian Maradona" after he began to emerge as one of the leaders of widespread protests across the country.
Ali Karimi, the former captain of Iran’s national football team, has used his significant online fanbase to drum up support for thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in fury in the wake of the death last week of Mahsa Amini.
He was the first prominent Iranian figure to blame the death of the 22-year-old on Iran’s morality police, telling his millions of followers that he believed her family’s story that she died of injuries sustained after she was beaten for not wearing her hijab properly.
Since then, the former Bayern Munich forward has devoted his social media channels to encouraging the mass uprising as it has spread across the country and sharing pictures and videos. He is seen as a legend in Iran, where football is the national sport.
“I am just an ordinary citizen of Iran and not after any post or position for my activism. I am only after peace and prosperity for my people,” he said on Twitter.
He has also advised followers on how to use VPNs to get around an internet blackout and safely share their footage online.
Demonstrations continued in more than 80 Iranian cities overnight on Friday, with unconfirmed reports suggesting security forces had been kicked out of the Kurdish city of Oshnavieh in west Iran, where Amini is from.
As the Revolutionary Guards have turned to live ammo and violence to suppress the protests, the death toll has climbed to 71, including at least three children, according to human rights and opposition groups. The official death toll is 35, including at least five security personnel.
Sweeping arrests have been reported, with the police chief in the northwestern province of Guilan announcing on Saturday "the arrest of 739 rioters including 60 women" in his region alone, the Tasnim news agency said.
Security forces have carried out a wave of arrests of activists and journalists, with US-based media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reporting 11 had been detained since Monday. They include Niloufar Hamedi of the reformist newspaper Shargh, who reported on Amini's death.
On Saturday, Mr Karimi warned Iran’s armed forces against getting involved in the crackdown, telling them: “You are the soldiers of the motherland and responsible for protecting the lives of our citizens, not to take them away.”
His rising profile has not gone unnoticed. The Fars news agency, a mouthpiece for the Revolutionary Guards, on Friday called Mr Karimi “a rioter” and demanded Iran’s intelligence ministry and judiciary “deal with him”.
It suggests the Iranian regime is increasingly worried about his role as a highly popular opposition figure that a nascent protest movement could coalesce around.
“In the tragedy of Mahsa’s death he has been a vocal voice for the nation,” Ben Chardehi, the founder of a London-based Iranian football club, told the Telegraph.
“Karimi’s massive popularity among Iran’s youths is more to do with his political views, rather than his outstanding sportsmanship. He has never bowed to the regime.”
The footballer’s popularity goes back to the time of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, when he wore a green wristband to show his support for demonstrators during a World Cup match.
Since then, he has been involved in many campaigns opposing the Iranian regime’s domestic and regional policies, from a ban on women entering stadiums to Tehran’s support for radical militia groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza.
But whether his support will make any difference to this latest round of unrest is unclear.
President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday that Iran must "deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility".
Amnesty International on Saturday warned of "the risk of further bloodshed amid a deliberately imposed internet blackout".
The US Treasury on Friday authorised exports of internet access devices to Iran and said the decision was as a gesture of “Washington’s support for the brave protestors in Iran”.
Separately, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he has agreed to activate his Starlink satellite service for users in Iran to help with communications.
Meanwhile in London, demonstrators outside Iran’s Embassy in Kensington today called on Liz Truss to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran in protest against the treatment of women in the country.
Dozens of Iraqi and Iranian Kurds rallied in Iraq's northern city of Erbil on Saturday in solidarity with Amini, who was Kurdish.