Murtaza Ahmadi went viral in 2016 after pictures of him emerged wearing a makeshift Lionel Messi shirt fashioned out of a plastic bag. The Afghan boy’s humble tribute to his Barcelona idol touched the hearts of many, including, it seems, Messi himself. Murtaza would receive a package from the player via UNICEF, which included a real signed shirt, and he later even met his hero in a friendly played in Qatar.
But those moments of joy have been replaced by dark times.
The seven-year-old has been forced to flee his home after receiving death threats. His family say his fame has made him a target. “Local strongmen were calling and saying, ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son’,” his mother, Shafiqa, told AFP.
“[They] said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces,” his mother continued.
Murtaza’s family abandoned their home in the Ghazni province in November, along with hundreds others, as the Taliban launched an attack into the previously safe area. Now, Murtaza, along with many others in a similar situation, are struggling to get by in Kabul. The family reports they were unable to carry any belongings, and lost the prized shirt in the process. They consider the idea of returning home at this point impossible.
“At night we would sometimes see unknown men, watching and checking our house, and then the calls,” his mother continued. “During the days, we wouldn’t dare let him outside home to play with other children.”
Sports were rarely tolerated during the Taliban’s reign between 1996 and 2001.
As for little Murtaza, he says he misses his ball and shirt the most.
“I want them back so I can play,” he told AFP.
”I miss Messi,” he continued. ”When I meet him, I will say, ‘Salaam’ and ‘How are you?’ Then he will reply saying thank you and be safe, and I will go with him to the pitch where he will play and I will watch him.”