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The three games remaining on Argentina and Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi’s international suspension have been vacated, FIFA announced on Friday. The four-game suspension in all international games had been imposed by FIFA, just hours before Argentina was to face Bolivia on March 28, for Messi’s verbal abuse of an assistant referee in the 1-0 win over Chile on March 23.
Messi sat out that game against Bolivia, which Argentina lost 2-0, but will be allowed to play the other three of his overturned suspension. Because an appeal of the FIFA suspension to … FIFA itself … was successful.
“Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee,” FIFA declared in a statement when it announced the initial suspension.
The decision was immediately controversial, because the incident, where Messi chewed out assistant referee Emerson Carvalho, was not noted in referee Sandro Ricci’s match report. Instead, the investigation had been instigated by the Chilean federation, which submitted video footage of Messi’s verbal tirade.
Messi, for his part, insisted that he was just swearing “at the air,” presumably out of frustration with the difficult game. Or something.
The Argentine federation believed back then that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to suspend Messi, and it was finally vindicated more than a month later.
“Despite the fact that the FIFA Appeal Committee considered Lionel Messi’s behavior as reproachable,” FIFA wrote in a statement. “The former concluded that the evidence available was not sufficient to establish to the appropriate standard, i.e. to the comfortable satisfaction of the members of the Appeal Committee, that art. 77 a) of the [FIFA Disciplinary Code], according to which the Disciplinary Committee is responsible for sanctioning serious infringements which have escaped the match officials’ attention, could be applied.”
“The Appeal Committee nevertheless underlines the importance of always showing respect to the match officials, stressing that such a principle is essential in football and any unsporting conduct that may be contrary to the principles of fair play cannot be accepted,” FIFA added. “In view of the above decision, the suspension for four matches imposed on Lionel Messi, which entered into force on 28 March 2017, and the fine of 10,000 [Swiss Francs] have been lifted.”
What’s befuddling is why this burden of proof was not applied initially but only after an appeal was lodged, and Messi missed a game. If it was true that the “evidence available was not sufficient” on May 4, when a hearing was held, that should have also been true on March 28, when the initial sentencing was announced.
It felt a little like FIFA made an example of Messi in its ongoing and just campaign to curb verbal abuse against referees. But the magnitude of the punishment felt draconian and unfair, seemingly aimed at the world’s most famous player just to send a message to all others in the game.
At any rate, the lifted suspension will come as an enormous relief to Argentina. The 2014 World Cup runners-up – which also managed to lose the 2015 and 2016 Copa America title matches, and were beaten in all three finals after extra time – are in trouble in their attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After 14 of 18 games, the Albiceleste find themselves in fifth place in South America’s CONMEBOL, meaning that, at present, they would have to enter a playoff just to make it to the World Cup.
At various times, they have even been outside of the qualifying spots. In spite of a wealth of attacking talent, Argentina has toiled to a 6-4-4 record. And playing three-quarters of its remaining games without its captain, architect, spark plug and leading goalscorer was an ominous prospect.
Meanwhile, Messi will turn 31 during the next World Cup, suggesting this is the last such tournament during his prime – even though he has shown no signs of aging on the field. If he ever is to win the thing, and silence the holdouts who argue he can’t be the greatest player of all time without lifting the World Cup (the way Diego Maradona and Pele did) next summer’s edition in Russia probably represents his best chance.
And for that to happen, to state the very obvious, Argentina has to qualify. Those prospects have improved dramatically following Friday’s news.
Which only seems fair.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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