It all started with a plastic bag. Months after a boy in rural Afghanistan became a sensation for wearing a homemade Lionel Messi jersey, he has now met the soccer star and watched his FC Barcelona team play in Qatar.
"I'm very happy to have met my hero. It is a dream for me," Murtaza Ahmadi said of his time with Messi.
Routinely ranked as one of the best soccer players in history, Messi had already brightened Murtaza's life back in February, when he sent several signed Argentine national team jerseys and a new soccer ball to the boy. The gifts were relayed via UNICEF, an organization that counts Messi as a goodwill ambassador.
At the time, Murtaza said, "I love Messi and my shirt says Messi loves me."
Tuesday's meeting between superstar and superfan was arranged by Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, organizers of the country's hosting of the 2022 World Cup. We'll also note that Qatar Airways is a key sponsor of Messi's Barcelona team.
It was quite a day for Murtaza: In addition to meeting Messi at his hotel, he gave the superstar a big hug and held his hand as they ran onto the pitch where Barcelona would play a local pro team. Murtaza stayed by his favorite player's side through handshakes and Barcelona's team photo.
Murtaza was also given the important job of placing the ball at midfield before play began — but when a referee directed the boy off the field, he instead made a beeline to Messi, who again grabbed his hand.
The boy's presence brought smiles to both players and officials — including the referee who eventually had to carry a grinning Murtaza off the field.
Murtaza, who's now 6, was 5 years old when his brother made him a Messi jersey out of a blue-striped plastic bag, complete with a handwritten No. 10. Photos of the boy's obvious pride at having a connection to his hero melted many hearts.
When UNICEF orchestrated a replacement for that bag with the genuine article from Messi, the agency said of Murtaza, "Like so many other children, he has the same right to thrive, play, and practice sports."
Months after his homemade jersey made him famous, Murtaza's family reported receiving threats — and in May, his father, Mohammad Arif Ahmadi, said the family had moved out of Afghanistan.