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'Little Messi' And His Family Say Threats Forced Them To Flee Afghanistan

Five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi, an avid Lionel Messi fan from Afghanistan, poses in a signed jersey from the Argentinian soccer great on Feb. 26. The boy's father says the media coverage led to threats toward the family.

Five-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi became a worldwide sensation in January when a photo of him wearing a homemade Lionel Messi jersey made from a blue-striped plastic bag went viral.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, Murtaza's story soon reached Messi himself, and through UNICEF, the Argentinian soccer great sent Murtaza his very own autographed No. 10 national team jersey, as the Two-Way reported. The resulting photo of Murtaza wearing the jersey, arms outstretched as if celebrating a goal, made triumphant rounds on social media.

But now the feel-good story seems to have taken a darker turn. Murtaza's father says his son's minor fame attracted unwanted attention.

"Life became a misery for us," Mohammad Arif Ahmadi told The Associated Press over the telephone from the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Ahmadi told the AP that the family received telephone threats he said were from the Taliban and a menacing letter he believed was also from the militant group. The news service reports:

"Ahmadi said that at first he was not sure who was behind all the phone calls, and that he thought it might be criminal gangs seeking to extort money and falsely thinking the family might have made lots of cash amid the boy's international popularity," the news service reports.

"But he said he realized it was the Taliban after he received a call from a local driver in the area who told him he was bringing him a letter."

As the threats became more intense, Ahmadi says he decided to leave the country.

"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," he said, according to the AP.

When the original image of Murtaza beaming in his makeshift plastic jersey caught fire, UNICEF took the opportunity to comment on the importance of helping children "trapped in emergencies." The aid group said: "Like so many other children, he has the same right to thrive, play, and practice sports."

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