"I love Messi and my shirt says Messi loves me," says Murtaza Ahmadi, the 5-year-old whose image became a sensation when he was seen wearing a homemade Lionel Messi jersey made from a blue-striped plastic bag. The boy got the genuine article today, part of a package from the soccer star who's also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
Taken in early January, the photo of Murtaza wearing his improvised shirt quickly attracted the attention of a Lionel Messi fan account on Twitter, which reposted it along with an emoticon of a broken heart (and the information, later proven erroneous, that the boy was in Iraq).
Days later, Messi, the five-time winner of FIFA's World Player of the Year award, helped the fan account spark an Internet campaign to locate the boy.
By the end of January, news emerged that the boy was living on a farm in a rural part of Afghanistan, and that Murtaza's older brother, Hamayon, had helped him make the shirt with Messi's name on it.
"I told him that we were living in a poor village far from the city and it was impossible for me to get him the shirt," Murtaza's father, Arif Ahmadi, told CNN. "He kept crying for days asking for the shirt until his brother Hamayon helped him make one from the plastic bag to make him happy. He stopped crying after wearing that plastic bag shirt."
Indeed, one of the most striking things about that first image, and others that Hamayon posted to Facebook, is the boy's obvious glee, beaming as he points to Messi's No. 10 written on a bag.
In photos released Thursday, Murtaza holds his hands straight out as he wears his new jersey, one of several Argentine national team jerseys signed by Messi that were sent to him along with a new soccer ball. They were relayed to him by UNICEF — the United Nations Children's Fund — which says its agencies in both Argentina and Afghanistan helped in the project.
In its message about Murtaza's story today, UNICEF emphasized the importance of helping the 43 million children who it says are "trapped in emergencies worldwide."
The organization writes, "Like so many other children, he has the same right to thrive, play, and practice sports."
From Afghanistan, the TOLO news agency reports, "The boy's father said at first he was unhappy about the fuss made after a photograph of the boy in the T-shirt went viral on social media platforms around the world. But he said he is happy now."