The Afghan boy who stole Lionel Messi’s heart – and ours

Murtaza Ahmadi shows off his Lionel Messi jersey. (Credit: Homayoun Ahmadi/Al Jazeera)

Murtaza Ahmadi, a 5-year-old boy living in Afghanistan, wanted to emulate his soccer hero, Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona. At Murtaza’s request, his older brother Homayoun used a blue and white striped plastic bag and fashioned it into a jersey with the name Messi across the front. A picture Homayoun uploaded to Facebook of Murtaza kicking the ball quickly went viral and caught the attention of the world’s best soccer player.

Stories of the boy proliferated as the photograph spread quickly across social media. Nearly a decade ago, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan did not see many children playing soccer. The main stadium in Kabul was used for executions, rather than sporting events. But now, a little boy from the rural Jaghori district in the province of Ghazni dreams of becoming the next great soccer player.

“I wear this plastic bag shirt for Messi. I would like to meet him. I love him so much,” he said to Voice of America.

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That message made it to Spain. The management team for Messi reached out to the Afghan Football Federation to arrange a meeting with Murtaza, the organization said to Al Jazeera. Murtaza had the opportunity to play with the Afghan national team earlier in the week. He proudly wore both his plastic-bag uniform, and a brand new FC Barcelona Messi jersey.

Afghanistan is one of the lowest ranked countries in the world, according to the U.N.’s Human Development Index. Roughly three-quarters of the population is either living in or near multidimensional poverty. The country has struggled to rebuild in the wake of years of Taliban rule and the U.S.-led invasion that removed the terror-linked group.

International aid and other forms of support have poured into the country, but the outlook for Afghanistan remains poor. The World Bank estimates that its economy will grow less than 2 percent and improve only a little bit over the next few years. More kids are in school than when the Taliban was ousted in 2001, but many girls remain home. The same story can be said for the national health system – major improvements have been made, but there is a long way to go.

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It is easy to get bogged down with many of the troubles that face Afghanistan. The story of Murtaza shows that there is still hope for the next generation. It just might be possible that the next Lionel Messi is in Afghanistan.

“I want my son to bring pride to the country and play in the international football matches one day,” said Murtaza’s father, Mohammed Arif Ahmadi to Al Jazeera.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.