Voria Ghafouri – already a star defender for Tehran’s Esteghlal FC – has become a hero in Iranian football for speaking out about an economic crisis that has led to soaring food prices. In a rare injection of politics into Iranian sport, fans interrupted a match on Wednesday to chant support for his defiant statement on Instagram that “it’s the ordinary people who are under pressure”.
Ghafouri was responding to statements made by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a summit in Switzerland February 12. Referring to sanctions imposed by the United States, Zarif said that Iranians were “proud of defending the people of Palestine,” adding, “Today, we are all under pressure.”
The footballer responded on Instagram February 14: “Mr. Zarif, you who say that you are proud to be under pressure because of Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. Know that it’s not you who is under pressure, it’s the ordinary people who are under pressure.”
Ghafouri was referring to an economic crisis, partially caused by the US sanctions, that has led to soaring food prices in recent months. According to the state-run Statistical Centre of Iran, food prices have increased between 20 percent and 250 percent in one year, depending on the product.
On February 18, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei criticised “sportsmen who take advantage of the security of the country,” warning them that they “should not forget how that security is achieved”. That was apparently enough for the Ministry of Sport to summon Ghafouri for questioning.
Football fans chant “You’re saying what the people are saying!”
During a February 20 match between Esteghlal, currently fifth-ranked in Iran’s pro league, and Pars FC, fans at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran began chanting in support of Ghafouri’s comment.
This video, widely shared on social networks in Iran, was filmed in that statium that day. Fans can be heard chanting support for Ghafouri, saying, “Bravo Voria, you are the voice of the people.”
“Shahin”, an Esteghlal supporter who was present, described what happened:
“We had planned it. We organised in fan groups on social media like Telegram, agreeing to show support for Voria at exactly the 21st minute of the match, because his number is 21. At that minute, we chanted slogans like “Voria, Voria, we support you” or “Bravo Voria, you are the voice of the people”, or just singing his name together. It went on for three or four minutes.”
“Football fans in Iran normally don’t get involved in politics. Even in 2009, during the Green Movement, football stadiums were mostly calm. But this time people decided to support Voria. For one thing, what he said isn’t directly political – he’s talking about the economic crisis that has affected many people in Iran. Most football fans aren’t rich or even middle-class. Voria was speaking for all of us. Another reason we were chanting for him is that he was summoned to the Sports Ministry and we were worried the Football Federation might put a ban on him. We wanted to show we are behind him.
Because of social media, football fans are getting more and more interested in current events – politics, economic and social issues. I feel there’s been a shift under way over the last couple of years. Things are changing in the way football fans behave.”
Talking to reporters after the match, Ghafouri said he had had “a friendly chat” at the Ministry of Sport. He said his Instagram post was not politically motivated. “I just wanted to amplify what people are already talking about – the high cost of living. We should be ashamed when we see people queuing for meat. It’s your duty as journalists to broadcast pictures of those queues too. What I said was just reality. I’m not going to stop talking about it.”
Other Iranian footballers have shown their support for Ghafouri’s remarks on their own Instagram pages.Top left is a post from Alireza Jahanbakhsh, an Iran national who plays in England for Brighton and Hove Albion, in which he says of Ghafouri: “Real humans are never afraid to tell the truth.”
On February 21, fans at at a second-division volleyball match in Marivan chanted Voria Ghafouri’s name, in an apparent sign of support for his statements on Iran’s economic crisis.
“Black Friday” over meat in Iran
Rampant inflation has led to soaring prices in Iran, with the price of meat more than doubling in four months, according to Iranian state TV. The price of lamb and beef reached 105,000 toman per kilo (€7.50) in February. The minimum monthly wage is around 1.3 million toman (€93).
To restrain prices, Iran’s government has been importing meat and selling it in stores at the subsidised price of 29,000 toman per kilo (€2). Chicken sells on the open market for about 15,000 toman per kilo (€1); the subsidized price is about 11,500 toman (€80).
The subsidised meat created the kind of shopping frenzy seen during annual sales. Thousands of Iranians flocked to stores selling the cheap meat, standing for hours in the long lines in front of the stores.
This video circulating in Iran shows people rushing to buy subsidised meat February 18, 2019, in the city of Shiraz. Government subsidies allowed stores to sell beef and lamb for around 29,000 toman a kilo – around four times cheaper than on the open market.
This photo shows people queuing for subsidised meat in Ahvaz, southwestern Iran, February 17, 2019.
This photo shows people waiting in line to buy subsidised chicken in Bushehr in southern Iran on February 21, 2019.
- First publisheh here on France24.