Against a desolate backdrop, a young boy beams into the camera. Like most children around the world, he wears his favorite soccer player’s jersey – although his is made from a plastic bag. Little does he know that, months from now, his wildest dreams will come true in the most heart-warming way.
In January 2016, five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi was living in the Jaghori District of Ghazni, a province of Afghanistan. A huge soccer fan, he enjoyed watching his favorite players on his family’s solar-powered TV.
But there was one player in particular that Murtaza loved above all others. That player is Lionel Messi, the Argentine star who plays for both FC Barcelona and Argentina’s national team. To the young Afghan boy, Messi was a living, breathing hero.
Murtaza begged his father Arif to buy him a soccer jersey with Messi’s name on the back. But as an impoverished farmer in rural Afghanistan, Arif could not afford the high cost of an official shirt.
Touchingly, though, the family improvised. Murtaza’s brother found a blue-and-white carrier bag that bore a resemblance to the Argentina team’s uniform. Then, he fashioned a homemade shirt from it. Using a marker pen, he wrote Messi’s name and squad number on the back.
Murtaza’s older brother Hamayon snapped a photo of the boy in his new shirt and uploaded it to Facebook. Soon, the image went viral. However, because the photo only showed Murtaza from behind, a global hunt for the boy in the picture began.
Amid claims that Messi himself was eager to track down his young fan and send him a proper shirt, rumors emerged on Twitter that a Kurdish TV station had identified the boy as a child named Homin from Kurdistan. However, BBC News reported that a Swedish student had falsified the claims to give his parents’ hometown recognition.
Eventually, the viral image reached Murtaza’s uncle Azim in Australia. Recognizing his nephew in the photograph, Azim put the media in contact with his brother in Afghanistan. And Murtaza finally found out about his internet fame.
It was the start of an incredible journey for the young soccer fan and his family. Both the Argentine Football Association and Messi’s club FC Barcelona sent Murtaza signed official jerseys to replace his plastic-bag creation. Meanwhile, he also received a football from the Argentine national team.
Sadly, Murtaza’s fame also brought with it some unwanted attention. In May, Arif received a phone call from a gangster in his hometown. The man believed that Murtaza had also received money as well as shirts and wanted a cut of the spoils.
Apparently, kidnap threats were also made – presumably in the hope of using the boy’s fame to demand a ransom. Fearing for their safety, the Ahmadi family fled to neighboring Pakistan.
After a brief stay in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, the family settled in Quetta, near the border with Afghanistan. All seven of them had to live together in one room. However, they hoped that the city would be able to provide them with an opportunity for a better life.
Murtaza, meanwhile, had been cultivating his own dream. He wanted to meet his hero face to face. “Messi, you know how much I like you,” he told the BBC in May 2016. “Now I want you to invite me so I can come and meet you.”
Although Messi was keen to meet his biggest fan, it would be seven months until something could be done. Finally, on December 13, 2016, the world watched as Murtaza’s dreams came true.
That day, Messi was in Doha, Qatar, with FC Barcelona to take part in an exhibition match versus Al Ahli, a United Arab Emirates-based team. And the organizers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar arranged for Murtaza to travel there and meet his idol.
In a touching video posted online, the boy, now six, can be seen reaching his hand out to Messi, who grabs it as he walks past. Later, at a specially arranged meeting, the soccer player picked a delighted Murtaza up in his arms. The pair posed for photos as Messi’s teammates mingled in the background.
In fact, this isn’t the first time that Messi has made headlines for his compassionate actions towards his young fans. Back in 2011, he met with a young Spanish boy who was learning to play soccer with prosthetic legs. Then, in 2012, he enjoyed a kickabout with a Brazilian youngster who had been born with no feet.
For Murtaza, meeting his idol was a dream come true. But the amazing encounter didn’t end there. The Afghan boy was also invited to join FC Barcelona on the field as a mascot before the game.
After posing for a photo with the team on the pitch and having the honor of placing the ball for kick-off, Murtaza was in no hurry to leave his idol behind. Despite the referee’s attempt to escort him off the pitch, the boy made a cheeky sprint back to Messi’s side.
Accompanied by cheers from the crowd, Murtaza stood beaming next to Messi, who halfheartedly tried to encourage the boy to leave – although he struggled to keep a straight face. Eventually, the referee scooped Murtaza up and carried him off the pitch as he continued to grin at the crowd. It’s a moment that the cameras loved, and one that the young Messi fan is sure to remember for the rest of his life.