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Messi's suspension for calling CONMEBOL corrupt only reinforces his point

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The absurdly harsh three-month suspension CONMEBOL, the governing body for soccer in South America, handed Lionel Messi on Friday for having the audacity to suggest that the historically and famously corrupt organization might still not be entirely on the level four years after the FIFA scandal sent much of its leadership to prison makes one wonder: Did Messi touch a nerve?

Let’s be clear here. No league or confederation on the planet can afford not to punish a player, even one of the best of all time, for making a claim like that without more than circumstantial evidence. Just because match officials somewhat mysteriously didn’t bother to review controversial game-altering plays in last month’s high-profile Copa America semifinal between Messi’s Argentina and Brazil doesn’t mean that the fix was in for the tournament hosts. Incompetence or even a subconscious bias toward the home team could explain it just as easily.

The ban doesn’t matter that much anyway, despite its length; Argentina won’t play another competitive game until World Cup qualifying kicks off next year.

Still, three months for comments that came in the heat of the moment after yet another crushing loss for the Albiceleste at a major event? That’s crazy given recent history. After all, it’s not like Messi’s charge happened in a vacuum.

El delantero argentino Lionel Messi se queja con el árbitro ecuatoriano Roddy Zambrano durante la semifinal ante Brasil en la Copa América en Belo Horizonte, Brasil, el martes 2 de julio de 2019. (AP Foto/Eugenio Savio)
Lionel Messi isn't going to play internationally for three months ⁠— maybe because he has a point. (AP)

Back in 2015, after the FBI indicted sitting CONMEBOL president Juan Angel Napout and a dozen other high-ranking South American soccer officials, any claim that “corruption and the referees are preventing people from enjoying the football and they're ruining it a bit” would’ve been indisputable.

Maybe Messi was wrong to say such a thing in 2019. But was he really wrong wrong?The accusation isn’t that shocking given CONMEBOL’s shameful recent past. The body has tried to clean up its image over the last few years, sure. How much it’s actually cleaned up its act is harder to discern. What’s clear is that it absolutely doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Which is why the severity of Messi’s ban could be viewed as reinforcing his point. The punishment seems intended to send a message more than anything else, just like the phantom red card Messi received a few days after speaking out in Copa America’s third-place match, apparently for being pushed repeatedly (without retaliating) by Chile’s Gary Medel. Given how CONMEBOL has treated Messi, do you think any other player will be eager to speak out?

Messi’s words seemed tinged with frustration more than anything else. The outburst felt similar to one Messi offered after the 2016 Copa America Centenario final, when the living legend abruptly announced his retirement from the national team, citing weariness with the perennial tire fire that is the Argentine Football Federation. He was right about that one. FIFA charged AFA president Luis Segura with fraud the following day.

Messi returned to the international game a few months later. Now, you have to wonder why he would even want to continue. Playing for his country has long seemed like a burden for the 32-year-old. After reaching three straight major finals between 2014 and 2016 and losing them all before failing to reach the Copa finale this summer, it’s become obvious that whatever window of opportunity there was for Messi to hoist a trophy while wearing the blue-and-white-striped shirt has all but slammed shut for good.

Maybe CONMEBOL would be happy if Messi walked away. Either they don’t know or don’t care how lucky they are that Messi, who could’ve represented his adopted homeland of Spain at the highest level, decided to pull on the No. 10 jersey that Diego Maradona once wore instead.

But then Messi has always carried himself with a sense of duty. He knows full well how powerful his platform is, and he only speaks out when he believes it necessary. That’s called integrity. Four years after being exposed as perhaps the most corrupt organization in the history of sports, it’s a quality the supposedly cleaned-up CONMEBOL still seems to severely lack.

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