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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Afghan 'Little Messi' now lives in fear from Taliban threats

Murtaza Ahmadi got to meet his idol Lionel Messi but now the Taliban is searching for him

Murtaza Ahmadi became an Internet sensation after wearing a plastic bag Lionel Messi Argentina shirt went viral. AFP
Murtaza Ahmadi became an Internet sensation after wearing a plastic bag Lionel Messi Argentina shirt went viral. AFP

An Afghan boy who captured the planet’s hearts over his love for football superstar Lionel Messi is now living in terror after learning the Taliban were looking for him by name.

Murtaza Ahmadi became an online sensation in 2016 when pictures emerged of him wearing an improvised blue and white plastic bag top with his hero’s name on it. In the ensuring attention Murtaza, now seven, would later that year walk out holding the hand of the Barcelona and Argentina star during a friendly match in Qatar.

However, Murtaza’s fortunes have quickly taken a devastating downtown after his family were forced to flee their home in the Jaghori district of Ghazni provincel in November following clashes between government forces and the Taliban.

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The family are in particularly danger as part of the Shiite-dominated Hazara ethnic group, who extremists such as the Taliban regard as infidels. Murtaza’s viral football fame has only increased fears for his safety. The Taliban are intolerant of sports and often held public executions in football stadiums when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

"(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces," Shafiqa, Murtaza’s mother, told AFP at the home they are now renting in the capital Kabul. Some 4,000 families fled the violence in Ghazni according to the UN and hundreds of soldiers, civilians and Taliban fighters were killed.

"We couldn't take any of our belongings, we left only with our lives. The danger of the Taleban coming back is high, going back is not an option,” said Ms Shafiqa. Due to Murtaza’s fame, when the family ran from their home after hearing gunshots nearby, he was forced to hide his face with scarf.

Murtaza was given an official Messi Argentina shirt. Courtesy Unicef 
Murtaza was given an official Messi Argentina shirt. Courtesy Unicef 

"Local strongmen were calling and saying, 'You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son'," said Ms Shafiqa.

"At night we would sometimes see unknown men, watching and checking our house, and then the calls. During the days, we wouldn't dare let him outside home to play with other children,” she added.

This is not the first time Murtaza’s family have escaped from their home. In 2016 they sought asylum in Pakistan but had to return to Jaghori when they ran out of money.

Afghan forces have, to some degree, beaten back the Taliban in Jaghori and the father of the family, Arif, has remained in their home district as a farmer.

 Murtaza got to meet his hero in December 2016. Karim Jaafar / AFP
 Murtaza got to meet his hero in December 2016. Karim Jaafar / AFP

Also left behind in Jaghori were perhaps Murtaza’s most loved possessions – a signed shirt and ball given to him by Messi.

"I want them back so I can play. I miss Messi,” said Murtaza.

"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,” he added.

According to the UN more than 300,000 Afghan’s, 58 per cent who are children, have been forced to leave their hometowns this year because of the spiralling violence.