Lionel Messi, Murtaza Ahmadi and the magic of being a fan

Football: Barcelona v Al Ahli friendly

Murtaza Ahmadi is one lucky, lucky boy.

If you don’t know who he is, go to Twitter or scroll down your Facebook timeline. Murtaza is everywhere. He’s just six years old but today, he’s the biggest sport story of every publication.

For those who are still living under a rock, here’s some context.

Murtaza is a football fan from Afghanistan. Last January, he became an internet sensation. No, he doesn’t have stunning skills with the ball. No, there was no video of him going past eight defenders either.

His claim to fame was his jersey. Back up, it wasn’t his jersey. It was what he did with a plastic bag to turn it into a football jersey. Murtaza gathered an Argentine coloured (white and blue striped) plastic, scribbled the name ‘Messi’ and his number on the back and was photographed playing football.

The internet, staying true to its nature, went “aww…” over it as it does over every good looking chaiwala or senseless kitten posts and dubbed Murtaza as Messi’s ‘fan number 1’. However, after a few click bait headlines and thousand page views, the story should’ve ended there.

It didn’t.

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Murtaza was tracked down and last night, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, made his dream come true.

Murtaza met Lionel Messi.

Not only did he meet him, he walked on to the pitch with him, hugged him and refused to let him go. It was Murtaza’s night and Messi and his Barcelona colleagues played second fiddle to perfection.

The video, as expected, went viral and it brought a smile on everyone’s face. But more than its virality, the video re-established the power that sport possesses and how it can touch people’s lives.

But it’s a difficult time to be a fan. Especially, a football fan. Trust me, under the glamour of the Premier League, the dark underbelly of football makes for a terrible reading.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t believe it either.

Till last October, football, for me, meant the footballing elite of Europe. Then, I came to know about clubs in Eastern Europe who fail to pay the salaries of their players. I came to know about clubs in the ‘stan region where players are made to sign contracts under duress.

Football has changed. It has changed too much, too quickly. Money has become the driving factor and that has taken away the simple pleasures of the sport.

Nowadays, everyone wants to make money. Nothing wrong in it. The football economy should grow every year but it shouldn’t take away the sheer joy of a sensational first touch. Players should earn more money. Nothing wrong in it. But their agents shouldn’t hold their clubs to ransom. Big money transfers should happen. Nothing wrong in it. But that shouldn’t deter a fan from being a student of the game and get lost in the clamour.

I came to study football business because I wanted to know more. But after the last couple of months, I think ignorance was bliss for me.

I have started looking at the game differently. Now, a late substitution makes me smirk – more appearance fee, I think. Every Anthony Martial goal means more bonus money for Monaco and every Alexis step-over is one more zero added at the end of his contract.

The more you know the bigger cynic you become.

Last night, Murtaza fulfilled his biggest dream. He also washed away my cynicism. His warm hug to Messi reminded me why I started watching the game and Messi’s candid behaviour re-ignited the magic of being an illogical fan that I really am. A fan who can’t do anything but worship his heroes. A fan who can’t do anything but support his ‘loser’ team. A fan who can’t do anything but dream.

And boy, dreams do come true.

Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan – the engines of the ‘Kabul Express’

Hamid Hassan - Fierce yet innocent!

Hamid Hassan – Fierce yet innocent!

1992: Wasim Akram

1996: Aravinda de Silva

1999: Lance Klusener

2003: Sachin Tendulkar

2007: Glen McGrath

2011: Yuvraj Singh

My list of stand out performers from the past World Cups.

World Cup 2015 has just begun but I already have got my pick of this edition — the Afghan pair of Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran. Forget AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Virat Kohli, these two fast bowlers have already stolen the show Down Under.

There’s something about fast bowling.

All of us at some point in our lives have wished to be a fast bowler, not a medium-fast one but someone who charges in like Brett Lee and celebrates the ‘Shoaib Akhtar’ – way after sending the stumps flying.

Even Sachin Tendulkar wanted to become a fast bowler.

Fast bowling is a sight in itself — the long run up, the fluttering mane, the gravity defying jump, the windmill action of the arm and then, the follow-though ending up under the batsman’s nose accompanied by a cold stare.

I too, wanted to be…that.

I couldn’t. The hair was in place, the headband was bought, the new 10-spikes were raring to go but the wiry frame and a fragile lower back revolted.

It’s a difficult art to master but it’s uncomplicated. It’s physically taxing because the human body isn’t built for it. It’s mentally exhausting because the human mind isn’t programmed to race at that pace, yet in its act, it is simple — adrenaline over brains. That’s why although, fast bowling is dipped in a sea of masculinity, there’s an amazing innocence in fast bowlers.

Hamid Hassan is an example of that innocence.

In today’s age of cynicism, how many cricketers can put on a headband, wear face paint and still expect not to be laughed at?

It’s not easy to rock a headband unless you are John Rambo. Hassan dons a multi-coloured one. Not only that, he also paints his country’s flag on his cheeks.

Then, he bowls at 145 km/hr.

Now, that’s a serious package.

In most ways, Hassan is the modern avatar of Dennis Lillee — not in skills but in spirit. In an era where fast bowlers prefer the old ball to bowl change-ups and slower bouncers, Hassan runs in with the sole purpose of intimidation. Strong, fit and fierce, Hassan is an old school nasty fast bowler. A wicket-taker by nature, he doesn’t care about finesse. His brief is simple — steam in and hurl thunderbolts down at the batsmen. At full tilt, he has the ability to shatter the defences of Kumar Sangakkara.

He’s frightening while he runs in, yet he’s innocent. He tries the worst cartwheel celebrations of all time and gives the management a heart attack — again, lacks the skills but makes up in spirit.

Shapoor Zadran - the engine of the 'Kabul Express'

Shapoor Zadran – the engine of the ‘Kabul Express’

His partner-in-crime, Shapoor Zadran or ‘Shahpur’, as his jersey spells it, is a touch different. Already a superstar in the Afghan team, Zadran is the mirror image of Shoaib Akhtar.

Tall, strong with a flowing mop of unruly hair, Shapoor is a much improved version of Md. Irfan from Pakistan. While Irfan is still figuring out what to do with his height, Shapoor is scaling the TRP ratings in the cricket world. A favourite with the ladies, this Pathan is turning heads with both his smoldering looks and his performances. Like Hassan, Shapoor also belongs to the old school of fast bowling. By his own admission, he is always angry at the batsman and uses his rage as his main weapon.

However, it’s not the technicalities of their bowling that has ‘wow’-ed the fans and made this pair such a box office success in this World Cup.

There are quite a few deadly new ball bowling combinations going round the world right now — Southee and Boult, Steyn and Morkel, Mitch and Mitch, Anderson and Broad. Yet, none of these pairs offer what the Hassan-Zadran partnership does — the sheer “bad-assness” of fast bowling. The Steyns and the Andersons bowl the perfect channels but the engines of the ‘Kabul Express’ bowl you over with their infectious energy.

They put on a show and make it an elaborate one. They run in like steamrollers with bustling actions, they go over-the-top with their celebrations and with funny headbands and painted flags on their faces look juvenile but they have won hearts all around because they when they walk out, they wear their hearts on their sleeves.