To five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi, international soccer (football) star Lionel Messi is a hero. Earlier this year, Ahmadi was photographed wearing a plastic bag as an improvised Argentinian jersey with Messi’s number in the back.
The picture went viral on social media, catching attention of the Argentine superstar, and prompting him to send autographed jerseys to his tiny Afghan fan via UNICEF.
“I love Messi. I am thankful to him and I want to meet him,” the boy said.
The spotlight helped. An NGO assisted the family in moving from their tiny Afghan village to Kabul so Ahmadi could practice his soccer skills. But soon after, the family started receiving threats from the Taliban and criminal gangs involved in kidnappings for ransom.
“Under extremely difficult circumstances I was forced to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy (in Kabul). I arrived in Islamabad ((the Pakistani capital)). My financial condition did not permit me to live in that expensive city and five days later I moved to Quetta,” Ahmadi’s father, Mohammad Arif Ahmadi, told VOA.
FILE - Five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi wears a shirt of Barcelona's star Lionel Messi made of a plastic bag as he plays soccer at the Afghan Football Federation headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 2, 2016.
But the five-year old boy has not given up practicing soccer in exile. Occasionally, Ahmadi’s uncle takes him to a nearby field to play soccer with his family members.
"I am trying to move to a country where there is peace so Murtaza is able to fulfill his dream of becoming a soccer player. I want to see him become a good player, so he can represent Afghanistan in future," the elder Ahmadi said.
Taliban had banned some sports during their brutal five-year reign between 1996 and 2001. Although they converted the main Kabul soccer stadium into a stage for public execution, men’s soccer was still allowed in the country.
After the fall of the Taliban, sports became popular again. Insurgents, however, perceive sporting events as corrupt Western influence.