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Karimi at war with Iran's dark forces

The Iranian regime may have crushed million-strong street protests after the disputed presidential election last year but it is having a much harder time suppressing the most popular football player in the country.

Ali Karimi, whose skills have earned the sobriquet "Asia's Maradona", was one of four players who infuriated the regime by wearing green wristbands in support of the political opposition during Iran's World Cup qualifier against South Korea five days after the election. Iran's football federation banned them for life but backed down after FIFA demanded clarification.

Fourteen months later the regime has tried to exact revenge for that, and other acts of rebellion, by a player who it deems politically unsound.

At the end of a recent training session in the heat of Iran's summer Karimi (31) was seen drinking water on the sideline even though it was Ramadan. Mostafa Ajorlou, a Revolutionary Guard commander and managing director of Steel Azin, Karimi's club, seized his chance and dismissed him.

"Ali Karimi violated the club's rules by publicly breaking fast," he said. "For us no player is above observing religious rituals."

A programme on state television called '20:30', which is reputedly controlled by the intelligence services, then sought to destroy his reputation by broadcasting footage of him missing goals and receiving yellow cards.

Supporters of the man who was Asia's Player of the Year in 2004, who spent two years with Bayern Munich and who is the second most capped Iranian on record, were having none of it.

Nearly 40,000 fans have signed up to a Facebook page supporting Karimi. "Better to drink water than steal votes," wrote one signatory. At Steel Azin's last game, fans held aloft pictures of Karimi and chanted his name.

Past and present team-mates have also spoken out. Mehrzad Madanchi of Steel Azin has revealed that the entire team ate lunch that day.

The reaction seems to have shaken a regime that can hardly afford to squander any more public support.

Yesterday, Tabnak, an officially sanctioned website, reported that two members of Steel Azin's board had told Karimi that Mr Ajorlou would soon resign and he could return, provided he stayed silent. Karimi was still unwilling to play ball. He insisted that he would not return until Mr Ajorlou had gone.