A five-year-old Afghan boy who became famous online after photos surfaced of him playing soccer in a Lionel Messi “jersey” made out of a garbage bag has fled Afghanistan for Pakistan, after months of threats from jihadi groups.
Arif Ahmadi, the father of the young Murtaza, told the Associated Press that he decided to relocate his family after a week of incessant threats, most made by phone, against the young boy. Most threatened to abduct the boy for a ransom. The Ahmadi family is native to Joghori district in eastern Afghanistan.
“Life became a misery for us,” the elder Ahmadi told the AP, explaining that he at first blamed individual criminals looking to make money off of the boy’s online fame, but “he realized it was the Taliban after he received a call from a local driver in the area who told him he was bringing him a letter.”
“I sold all my belongings and brought my family out of Afghanistan to save my son’s life as well as the lives of the rest of the family,” the elder Ahmadi said, calling the AP from Quetta, Pakistan.
The family may not be safe in Pakistan, either, and have submitted an application with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to continue their migration elsewhere. Earlier this week, the Afghan government criticized Pakistan for not sufficiently crackdown down on Taliban activity on the border, and even allegedly meeting with senior members of the Taliban.
Ahmadi grew to international prominence after a photo surfaced of him online wearing a homemade Lionel Messi “jersey” made out of a plastic bag, painted with blue stripes to look like the Argentine soccer uniform.
— Kim Segal (@NewsKimSegal) May 4, 2016
— Khaleej Times (@khaleejtimes) May 2, 2016
In February, Breitbart News reported that the family was extremely poor, relying on solar power for television access, where the young Ahmadi first saw the soccer legend. “He (Murtaza) asked me many times to buy a Messi shirt,” Arif Ahmadi said. “I couldn’t provide for him. Later, his brother made him this plastic shirt and posted his photo on Facebook.”
Lionel Messi was unable to schedule a visit to meet the boy due to safety concerns, but upon seeing the image of Ahmadi responded by sending Ahmadi a signed jersey – a real one to replace his bag.
— Reuters India (@ReutersIndia) May 3, 2016
Back in February Breitbart News reported that the Afghan Football Federation was “planning to set up a meeting between Messi and Murtaza Ahmadi… Afghan federation spokesman Sayed Ali Kazemi said Tuesday officials hope Messi can come to Afghanistan to visit the boy, but otherwise they will arrange to send him to Spain.” In addition to playing for the Argentine national team, Messi is a team member on FC Barcelona, a Spanish soccer club.
Lionel Messi has personally received attention from radical Islamist groups, as well. During the 2014 World Cup, the Islamic State released propaganda encouraging Messi to abandon soccer and join the jihad, in a tweet responding to Messi’s work securing a victory for Argentina against Iran.