After photos of a five-year-old Afghan boy wearing a homemade Lionel Messi shirt went viral – subsequently earning him signed shirts from the football icon – the young fan and his family have been forced to flee to Pakistan due to repeated threats from local gangsters.
The picture of Murtaza Ahmadi, sporting a Messi Argentina shirt made from a striped plastic bag, led to the child receiving two signed shirts and a football from his idol. However, the boy's new-found fame also attracted the attention of local gangsters who, threatening to kidnap Murtaza, have demanded money from his family.
"A few days ago, I got a call from a local gangster. He thought that since my son had received these T-shirts from Messi that maybe he also got money and asked for his share," Arif Ahmadi told the BBC.
Arif told the Associated Press that life for the family had become a "misery" in Afghanistan and, although they did not want to leave, the situation was increasingly dangerous.
He said the family fled their home in Ghazni, central Afghanistan, and briefly stayed in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, but found it too expensive. They have now resettled in Quetta, an area of Pakistan popular with Pashtuns.
The Afghan football federation said in February that it had arranged a meeting between Murtaza and Messi, who is a Unicef goodwill ambassador. A spokesman for the federation said that either Messi would travel to Afghanistan to meet the boy, or Murtaza would travel to Spain, where Messi plays for Barcelona, or the two would meet in a third country.
So far though, the meeting has not materialised. "Still, Murtaza hopes that one day he would be able to meet his hero, Messi," the father added.