A 5-year-old Afghan boy living in an insurgency-prone area has become an online sensation after pictures of him dressed in an improvised Lionel Messi jersey - made out of a plastic bag - went viral.
Murtaza Ahmadi idolizes the Argentine soccer star but a jersey of his favorite player is beyond the means of his poor family in rural Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul. His elder brother Homayoun, 15, made him the plastic shirt with Messi's named scrawled in marker pen and posted the photos of Murtaza wearing it on Facebook two weeks ago.
"Our neighbor had thrown away grocery bags and Murtaza brought me one to make a Messi jersey," Homayoun, a high school student and himself a FC Barcelona fan, told AFP. Jorge Messi, Lionel's father, told AFP the footballer was aware of the photos that made waves on social media and "wants to do something" for his young fan.
Murtaza, whose father admitted he could not afford to buy him a replica jersey, said he only had a punctured ball to play with in his village, in Taliban-infested Ghazni. "We do not have a football playground near our house and the only ball I have is punctured," Murtuza told AFP.
"I love Messi, he plays really well, and I love the shirt my brother made for me." Kicking the deflated football in his snow-covered village, he added: "I want to be like Messi when I grow up."
Mohammad Arif Ahmadi, his father, who works as a farmer, said he hopes that his son turns into a great football player one day. "I want my son to become the Messi of Afghanistan," he told AFP. "Murtaza wants to meet Lionel Messi in person one day. He asked me to buy him a jersey but I cannot afford it," Ahamdi, a father of six, said.
When his photos were first posted, Internet users scrambled to identify the boy and it was initially claimed he was an Iraqi Kurd.
But Murtaza's uncle Azim Ahmadi, who lives in Australia, revealed to the media that his nephew was the unwitting star of the story.
His father only learned about Murtaza's newfound fame from relatives when he recently visited Kabul for medical treatment.
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.
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