KABUL: Kicking a bright yellow football on a gravel-covered Kabul hilltop, an Afghan boy whose pictures in a plastic Lionel Messi jersey went viral evinced excitement on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) at the prospect of meeting the Barcelona star.
Five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi shot to global fame after his brother posted pictures of him dressed in the blue-and-white-striped plastic shirt with Messi’s name scrawled in marker pen on Facebook in mid-January.
Murtaza idolizes the Argentine soccer star but a jersey of his favorite player is beyond the means of his poor family in the Taliban insurgency-hit province of Ghazni near Kabul.
The Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) on Monday said Messi was in contact with them to arrange a meeting with Murtaza as soon as possible, though no date or venue has so far been finalized.
“I want to meet Messi, spend time with him, I love the way he plays football,” the boy told AFP during a visit to Kabul on Monday with his family.
“I love him very, very much,” he said, his cheeks flushed with excitement.
AFF said it was working to see whether Messi could visit Afghanistan or the five-year-old could travel to Spain or meet his idol in a third country.
Setting up a meeting in Afghanistan, in the grip of a fierce Taliban insurgency, is fraught with security challenges.
The Spanish embassy in Kabul told AFP it would do whatever possible to facilitate a meeting in a European destination.
A source close to Messi’s entourage said they could neither confirm nor deny the speculation regarding a possible meeting.
“We will work towards making his wishes come true,” the source said, adding that a jersey would be sent to the five-year-old.
Photos of the boy wearing the improvised Messi jersey — made from grocery bags discarded by their neighbor — has touched a chord with football fans around the world.
And it has earned Murtaza the sobriquet “little Messi” on social media.
Murtaza’s father, a poor farmer in Ghazni’s Jaghori district, admitted he could not afford to buy him a replica jersey.
“He insisted many times to buy him a Messi jersey but it is too expensive for me,” Mohammad Arif Ahmadi told AFP.
As members of the historically persecuted Hazara community, Ahmadi said an opportunity to meet Messi would bring a glimmer of hope to their lives.
“We live in an area surrounded by Taliban and Islamic State jihadists. We face lots of daily struggles,” he said.
“If a poor boy like my son manages to meet Messi, it will be a proud moment not just for us but all of Afghanistan.”
Sport was rarely played under Taliban rule, and the football stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.
Football and cricket are the two most popular sports in the war-ravaged country.