A young Afghan boy who was made famous online for his devotion to footballer Lionel Messi has been forced to flee his home for the second time.
Murtaza Ahmadi, now aged seven, went viral in 2016 after being photographed wearing a homemade Messi shirt, fashioned out of a plastic bag.
He later met his hero in Qatar.
His family say they have now abandoned their home in Afghanistan, after receiving threats from the Taliban.
They were living in the south-eastern Ghazni province – which militants have been targeting – and have escaped to the capital, Kabul.
They previously sought short-term refuge in Pakistan in 2016, but returned when they ran out of money, according to AFP news agency.
Murtaza was five years old when he wore a plastic-bag shirt in the white-and-blue colours of the Argentine national team, which Messi captains. It had the player’s number 10 drawn on the front with a marker pen.
After a photo was shared widely on social networks, people called for him to be found so Messi could respond.
When the boy’s name was released, the player sent him a package – including a signed shirt – via the children’s charity Unicef, which he works for as an ambassador.
Murtaza was later invited to meet Messi when the Barcelona star played a friendly in Doha in late 2016. The young fan walked on to the pitch with his idol.
The Taliban threats
However, his family say they fear the fame has made him a Taliban target.
“Local strongmen were calling and saying, ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son’,” his mother, Shafiqa, told AFP. She said were not able to take any of their belongings – including the precious shirt – when then left their home in the middle of the night after hearing gunshots.
Murtaza’s family are part of the Shia-denominated Hazara ethnic group, which has been targeted by the Sunni Taliban.
The Ghazni area remains under state control, but it is considered to be of strategic importance in the conflict between the government and the Taliban.
The hard-line Islamic group launched a major assault on the area in August and renewed their efforts in November, forcing thousands of locals to flee. Hundreds of people – civilians, soldiers, and insurgents – were killed in the outbreak of violence.
Murtaza’s 17-year-old brother, Humayoon, told Efe news agency that they had not been able to send him to school for the past two years and they do not let him play in the street.
“I miss Messi,” Murtaza said, when AFP found him in Kabul. He said he hopes to meet him again one day.
“When I meet him, I will say, ‘Salaam’ and ‘How are you?’ Then he will reply saying thank you and be safe, and I will go with him to the pitch where he will play and I will watch him.”