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.

Lionel Messi and Argentina – a story of distrust and convenience

MessiQuitter, escapist, loser, timid, traitor — in the last few days, all these adjectives have been used to describe Lionel Messi.

While the Argentine fans have spewed venom out of sheer anger, the rivals have hurled well-timed cheap shots at the greatest footballer in the world.

For years, Messi has bore the blame of being aloof to his national cause. Every time Argentina lost, his devotion to the national team was questioned. However, when the Argentine captain announced his retirement in the cramped press corner of the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, it suddenly hit home that the best player in the world won’t feature in the blue and whites any more.

While the entire world was shocked at his emotional farewell, those who follow Argentine football knew it was coming.

Messi gave in because he couldn’t take it anymore. He gave up because he was tired of proving his worth to a bunch of disapproving fans.

The question wasn’t ‘why’, the real question was – ‘what took him so long?’

There was no love left between Messi and Argentina. It was a relationship that developed out of convenience with distrust lurking on the edges. It never had the resolute support, the mutual respect or the soothing care that’s necessary to build a successful bond.

It had to fail. It did.

It was a match made in heaven but neither could make it work. It always felt like a marriage where the father of the bride paid his debts off to the groom’s family by offering them his daughter.

Argentina never trusted Messi but demanded him to deliver. He was their favourite whipping boy but he was their captain, their savior. He shouldered the responsibility of being the best player in the team. He also was ‘the outsider.’

Now, he’s gone and rightly so.

Messi never owed a thing to Argentina.

He was forced to leave the country at the age of 13 when his boyhood club, Newell’s Old Boys, gave up on him. He was a frail kid and the Rosario-based club couldn’t afford his growth hormone treatment.

Barcelona could.

Since then, Messi has been paying for it.

He’s been labelled as a foreigner by his own country but what most don’t know that even at La Masia he was treated as a foreigner. The Catalans didn’t accept him as a fellow mate at first but his skills won them over.

But those skills were not enough for the La Albiceleste.

They needed more from him — a World Cup, a couple of Copa Americas. They wanted him to dominate Brazil. They wanted him to be their next ‘Diego’.

They demanded. Messi tried. Messi failed. Messi tried harder. Messi failed again. And again. And again.

He got them to the cusp of glory once, twice…four times but could never take them over the line. He couldn’t because he tried his hardest on those days.

May be, he tried his hardest to be ‘Diego’ on those days.

Diego was loved because he fought wars wearing the national colours. Messi couldn’t become Diego because he was fending off attacks from his own countrymen.

Even the great Diego ridiculed his Golden Ball win at the World Cup. Recently, he called him a failed leader.

Finally, it became too heavy to bear, even for a five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

Is this the end though? Or will he reconsider his decision?

May be not now but come 2018, the appeals would grow stronger. The ones who asked him to ‘stay in Spain’ and called him ‘the outsider’ would have to go down on their knees and beg for his mercy.

Diego already has.

They say, a missed penalty on the biggest nights scars you for life. Roberto Baggio didn’t recover. But the missed penalty at the Copa final might have liberated Messi.

It was a sign that both Argentina and Messi need to move on and start fresh — empty-handed and full-hearted.

Who said all ‘happily ever afters’ need a happy ending?