The family of a 5-year-old Afghan boy who received autographed shirts from Barcelona star Lionel Messi, his football hero, has been forced to leave Afghanistan amid constant telephone threats and a menacing letter from the Taliban, the boy's father said.
Mohammad Arif Ahmadi -- whose son grabbed headlines in February when he was photographed wearing a homemade Argentina shirt with No. 10 on the back -- said the family has moved to neighboring Pakistan and settled in the city of Quetta, hoping for a better life there.
"Life became a misery for us," Ahmadi said in a telephone call with The Associated Press. He added that the family didn't want to leave Afghanistan, but the threats were growing more and more serious.
- UNICEF (@UNICEF) February 25, 2016
Ahmadi said he feared that his son Murtaza would be kidnapped after becoming an internet sensation -- both at home in Afghanistan and beyond -- after pictures of him wearing a Messi shirt made out of a striped plastic bag went viral.
Ahmadi said that at first he was not sure who made 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.
But he said he realised 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.
"It was a letter sent by the Taliban," Ahmadi said.
The Taliban have not commented about Murtaza, and a spokesman was not immediately reachable for comment.
The Ahmadi family first traveled to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, but couldn't stay there long because of the high cost of living. They later moved to Quetta.
"In the letter, the Taliban asked why my son was not learning the Quran in an Islamic school and why I was instead allowing him and encouraging him to play football," Ahmadi said.
When the threatening phone calls became more menacing, the family decided to leave. "That was the main reason that I left my homeland," Ahmadi said.
"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 Taliban banned some sports -- though not men's football -- calling them "un-Islamic" during their five-year reign between 1996 and 2001 and converted the main Kabul football stadium into a stage for public executions.
After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Afghanistan saw a rebirth of sports across the country. The insurgents perceive most of today's sporting events as a corrupt Western influence.
Earlier this year, the Afghanistan Football 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 have worked out, Ahmadi said.
"Still, Murtaza hopes that one day he would be able to meet his hero, Messi," the father said.