Kabul: The five-year-old Afghan boy who won the Internet's heart when he was pictured wearing a plastic bag as an improvised Lionel Messi jersey is still eager to meet the Argentine football superstar, he said today.
Murtaza Ahmadi travelled with his family to Kabul this week to receive two jerseys autographed by Messi and presented to the young fan by UNICEF.
Despite his obvious delight in the gifts, Murtaza, who is from the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority in Taliban-infested Ghazni province, said he still dreams of coming face-to-face with Messi.
"I want to meet Messi. I like him," he told AFP today, proudly dribbling his new ball across a dusty field in Kabul while swimming in one of his new jerseys, which was much too big for him.
Murtaza's elder brother Homayoun, 15, turned a blue-and-white-striped plastic bag into a jersey for his sibling by scrawling "Messi" on it in marker pen, then posted the photos of Murtaza wearing it on Facebook in mid-January.
The image struck a chord with football fans around the world, as social media swiftly dubbed Murtaza "little Messi".
The Afghan Football Federation had said Messi was in contact with them to arrange a meeting with Murtaza as soon as possible, with the Spanish embassy in Kabul telling AFP it would do whatever possible to help.
But setting up a meeting in war-torn Afghanistan is fraught with security challenges. A source close to Messi's entourage said earlier this month they could neither confirm nor deny the speculation regarding a possible meeting.
"Murtaza is very happy to receive the autographed jerseys from Messi but he wants to meet him face-to-face," Arif Ahmadi, the child's father, told AFP.
He said the family also dreams of Murtaza becoming a goodwill ambassador for children in the conflict-stricken country, while uncle Yasin Ahmadi said the family hoped Messi's team Barcelona would establish a football club in Afghanistan "so that children who are talented like Murtaza could become the future Messi".
Football and cricket are the two most popular sports in Afghanistan - but sports were rarely played under Taliban rule, and the football stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.