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FIFA banning Lionel Messi four matches for cursing is laughable.
Cursing at a referee’s assistant — though Messi contends he screamed the insult at the air — does not warrant a ban of four competitive matches in any circumstance, let alone 2018 World Cup qualifying, which only has five matches remaining. When a trip to Russia is hanging in the balance, how can Messi honestly get such a punishment?
A reckless tackle, like the one Wales’ Neil Taylor put on Ireland’s Seamus Coleman, only drew a two-match ban, with FIFA possibly raising the punishment to three matches. Taylor broke Coleman’s leg, but his punishment will be less severe than Messi’s ban for cursing, which caused no harm to anyone. Huh?
The most amazing aspect of the ban is that the match official and the linesman did not even include the complaints in their match reports. Instead, television footage and lip readers provided FIFA its evidence as the governing body clearly targeted the high-profile player.
Should Messi have uttered expletives? No, he probably should have kept playing with his mouth shut. But that doesn’t excuse the ridiculous overreach of power from the sport’s governing body against a player that has meant more to the growth of soccer and also FIFA’s bottom line than almost any other, past or present.
If anyone deserves special treatment and should be allowed to have a harmless insult swept under the rug, it’s Messi. This punishment screams of special treatment, but not the type of treatment befitting a great of the game. The 29-year-old is being made an example of, and the federation and his club, FC Barcelona, have come out with public statements against the ban.
Most importantly, banning Messi for four of the final five World Cup qualifiers could lead to Argentina missing out on the 2018 World Cup, given its place in the CONMEBOL table. Currently, Argentina is in fifth and faces a playoff to qualify for the tournament, but Ecuador is only two points behind, with Peru and Paraguay hovering another two points away.
After the ban was announced only hours prior to Tuesday’s kickoff against Bolivia, Messi sat out Argentina’s 2-0 defeat in the high altitude of La Paz, a home field advantage so notable that team doctors have been known to hand out Viagra to players to help with blood flow in the thin air of the city that sits nearly 12,000 feet above sea level.
Argentina is now in far more trouble than one would think. With Messi, Argentina has collected 15 points in six 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which adds up to five wins and one loss. The only defeat came away to Brazil, and Brazil is far and away the leader in South American World Cup qualification.
Due to injuries and a brief international retirement from the national team following a painful penalty shootout defeat in the Copa America Centenario final, not to mention a dispute with the Argentine Football Association, Argentina has plenty of recent experience playing without its captain and best player.
And that experience has not been good.
Without Messi playing for Argentina in the World Cup qualifying campaign, the 2014 World Cup finalists have only won one match out of eight qualifiers, which includes three losses and four draws. That adds up to seven points out of a possible 24 without Messi and 15 points of a possible 18 with Messi.
Even if Messi comes back to lead Argentina to a win in the final qualifier against Ecuador, which is hardly a sure bet considering Ecuador’s capital city of Quito is 9,350 feet above sea level, Argentina’s hopes to even make the playoff spot against the Oceania region for Russia 2018 could be in jeopardy.
Of course, Messi and Argentina have appealed the ban, but even a reduction to three matches would leave Argentina without its captain for vital qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela. A draw against last-place Venezuela, which is what Messi-less Argentina salvaged with two second-half goals in September of 2016, would be a crushing blow.
Common sense seemingly will not prevail in this matter. If this senseless and draconian ban ends up forcing Messi to miss the 2018 World Cup, which would likely be his final chance to claim the biggest prize in the sport while still in the prime of his career, the entire planet can at least join together in cursing FIFA.