KABUL (AFP) – Argentine football star Lionel Messi has sent not one, but two jerseys to a five-year-old Afghan boy who became an Internet sensation last month when he was pictured wearing a plastic bag with “Messi” scrawled on it in marker pen.
Murtaza Ahmadi travelled with his family from eastern Ghazni province to Kabul to receive the gifts sent by Messi through Unicef, where he is a goodwill ambassador.
“Murtaza couldn’t stop smiling,” Unicef Afghanistan spokesman Denise Shepherd-Johnson told AFP.
"I love Messi and my shirt says Messi loves me," Murtaza said, according to BBC Trending, which helped to locate the child - known as "Messi's biggest fan" - in the Jaghori District, in the eastern Ghazni province of Afghanistan.
Barcelona forward Messi - crowned the world's best player five times - autographed the jerseys, writing “With much love” in Spanish on them, and added a football to the treasure trove, Unicef said.
Purchasing a Messi jersey was beyond the means of Murtaza’s poor family, members of the persecuted ethnic Hazara minority living in volatile Ghazni, near Kabul.
His elder brother Homayoun, 15, improvised the blue-and-white-striped plastic shirt with Messi’s name scrawled in black marker, and posted the photos of Murtaza wearing it on Facebook in mid-January.
The image touched a chord with football fans around the world, and earned Murtaza the sobriquet “little Messi” on social media.
The Afghan Football Federation had said Messi was in contact with them to arrange a meeting with Murtaza as soon as possible, with the Spanish embassy in Kabul telling AFP it would do whatever possible to facilitate.
But a source close to Messi’s entourage said earlier this month they could neither confirm nor deny the speculation regarding a possible meeting.
Setting up a meeting in Afghanistan, in the grip of a fierce Taleban insurgency, is fraught with security challenges.
Football and cricket are the two most popular sports in the war-ravaged country – but sports were rarely played under Taleban rule, and the football stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.
It's not clear what has happened to the plastic bag, which may now have been retired, said BBC Trending.