KABUL, Afghanistan — The family of a 5-year-old Afghan boy who received autographed shirts from his soccer hero Lionel Messi was forced to leave Afghanistan amid constant telephone threats and a menacing Taliban letter, the boy's father said Tuesday.
Mohammad Arif Ahmadi — whose son grabbed headlines when he was photographed wearing a homemade Argentina shirt with No. 10 on the back — said they have moved to neighboring Pakistan and settled in the city of Quetta, hoping for a better life there.
"Life became a misery for us," said Ahmadi, speaking to The Associated Press over the telephone from Quetta. He added that the family didn't want to leave Afghanistan, but the threats were just getting more and more serious.
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 was behind all the phone calls, and that he thought it might 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 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.
"It was a letter sent by the Taliban," Ahmadi said.
The Taliban have not commented the case of the 5-year-old Murtaza and their 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 (Islam's holy book) in an Islamic school and why I was instead allowing him and encouraging him to play soccer," he added.
When the threatening phone calls became more menacing, the family decided to go and "that was the main reason that I left my homeland," he added.
"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 father said.
The Taliban banned some sports — though not men's soccer — as "un-Islamic" during their brutal five-year reign between 1996 and 2001 and converted the main Kabul soccer stadium into a stage for public executions.
After the Taliban were toppled, Afghanistan saw a rebirth of sports across the country. The insurgents perceive most of today's sporting events as corrupt Western influence.
Earlier this year, the Afghan soccer 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 worked out, Ahmadi said.
"Still, Murtaza hopes that one day he would be able to meet his hero, Messi," the father added.