Kabul: An Afghan boy who shot to fame for wearing a plastic shirt with soccer legend Lionel Messi’s name and number and eventually meeting his icon in person is now homeless after being displaced by a Taliban offensive.
Murtaza Ahmadi became a global sensation overnight in 2016 when a photograph of him wearing the blue and white striped plastic bag jersey, with “Messi 10” written on the back, went viral.
The seven-year-old lived with his family in the Jaghori district of the Ghazni Province, considered safe during most of the 17-year-long Afghan conflict.
But the relative calm was broken in early November when the Taliban attacked the area, forcing more than two-thirds of the population to flee.
“I miss our house in Jaghori. Here I don’t have a ball. I can’t play football or go outside,” Ahmadi told Efe news on Tuesday in Kabul, where his family has been living for the past two weeks.
The boy, in a message for the Barcelona legend, said: “Take me with you. I can’t play football here (in Afghanistan). There’s just daz-dooz (the sound of explosions and gunshots) here.”
Ahmadi lives with his parents and four siblings in a small room of a rented house, which they share with a neighbour, on a hillside west of Kabul, after having stayed in the neighbouring Bamyan Province for some time.
His eyes welled up when he was asked about the two jerseys and a football, which Messi had signed and gifted to him in Qatar in 2016.
“We left them behind in Jaghori. We could not bring them, because we left the house in the dark of the night and (my) mother told me to leave the ball and shirts at home,” he said.
Afghan security forces have driven out the rebels from the area, but the family has decided not to return home.
Even before the Taliban offensive, the family had been receiving continuous threats on phone due to their son’s sudden fame, his elder brother Humayoon Ahmadi, 17, told the news agency.
“After Murtaza met Messi in Qatar and returned home, life became difficult for us. We were living in fear because the people around us thought Messi had given us lots of money,” the boy’s brother said.
“Unknown people were lurking around our house at night. Because of these things and fearing his kidnapping, we almost locked Murtaza at home and did not send him to school for the past two years.”
The family had fled to Pakistan in May 2016, hoping to get asylum in the US. However, their asylum request was rejected and they were forced to return to the village, only to be displaced again.
An estimated 300,000 Afghans have been displaced this year alone and forced to live in difficult conditions, depending on aid from government and NGOs for their survival.
Two years after meeting his icon, Ahmadi has not forgotten a promise that Messi made to him in Qatar.
“Messi told me ‘once you get a little older, I will fix things for you’,” the boy said, adding that his icon had not called him since.
The seven-year-old boy’s mother Shafiqa told Efe that “whenever he hears a boom or the sound of a gunshot, he runs and hides under my chadar (shawl)”.