KABUL: The family of a five-year-old Afghan boy who received autographed shirts from his football hero Lionel Messi was forced to leave Afghanistan amid constant telephone threats, the boy's father said Tuesday.
Mohammad Arif Ahmadi ─ whose son grabbed headlines when he was photographed wearing a homemade Argentina shirt with No. 10 on the back ─ said they have moved to Pakistan and settled in the city of Quetta, hoping for a better life there.
"Life became a misery for us," said Ahmadi, speaking to The Associated Press over the telephone from Quetta. He added that the family didn't want to leave Afghanistan, but the threats were just getting more and more serious.
Ahmadi said he feared that his son, Murtaza Ahmadi, would be kidnapped after becoming an Internet sensation after pictures of him wearing a Messi shirt made out of a striped plastic bag went viral.
The family first travelled to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, but couldn't stay there long because of the high cost of living. They later moved to Quetta.
"I sold all my belongings and brought my family out of Afghanistan to save my son's life as well as the lives of the rest of the family," the father said.
‘Not even safe in Pakistan’
"I received over two dozen threatening calls which forced me to leave my homeland," Ahmadi's father told DawnNews.
He recalled that during one such threatening call “the caller had demanded that he should stop his child from playing soccer and get him some religious education”.
"I did not inform the Afghan government about threats," he argued, saying that the law and order situation did not allow him to rely on the Afghan security agencies.
About his Quetta residence he claimed that he is living on rent and is paying Rs5,500 a month, but is still not feeling safe and has submitted an application with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to seek asylum in some safer country.
Earlier this year, the Afghan soccer federation had promised to arrange a meeting between Messi, a Unicef goodwill ambassador, and Murtaza.
There were reports that either Messi would come to Afghanistan to visit the boy or that some other arrangement would be made, such as sending the boy to Spain, where Messi plays with Barcelona, or arranging a meeting in a third country.
But none of the options worked out, Ahmadi said.
"Still, Murtaza hopes that one day he would be able to meet his hero, Messi," the father added.