BUENOS AIRES – On Thursday, Lionel Messi swore at an assistant referee. It was an extended string of expletives and was not particularly edifying, but nor was it particularly extraordinary, just the usual Argentine practice of arranging the words p**a, madre and co***a in increasingly baroque variations. On Tuesday, a little more than four hours before Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza had to submit his lineup for the World Cup qualifier at Bolivia, FIFA announced that Messi had been banned for four games.
This raises a number of issues, not least the timing of the announcement. It is true that the Argentine Football Association had been warned of the sanction in advance, which is how news of it leaked on Tuesday morning, but given the complaint was only made on Monday, that still gave Bauza only 24 hours to work out an entirely new game plan. That is neither fair nor conducive to good football. It’s arguably not particularly fair on Bolivia either, who presumably have been working out ways to stop Messi.
Then there’s the question of why the complaint was made in the first place. Football probably would benefit from a harder line being taken on the abuse of officials, but that has to be a transparent process. The referee’s initial report contained no mention of the incident and CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body, reportedly only acted after Chile, which had lost 1-0 to Argentina, sent the confederation a video of the tirade. Is this to be the future of the game, associations desperately hunting through tapes to find evidence that will get a rival player banned for key matches? Almost all players swear, many of them at referees: if this regulation is enacted uniformly, World Cup squads are going to have feature 100 players if the semifinalists are to be able to field a starting 11.
And if four games is the tariff for swearing at an official, what’s the penalty for, say, a reckless lunge that shatters an opponent’s shin such as Neil Taylor’s foul on Seamus Coleman during Wales’s 0-0 draw in Ireland on Friday? But is four games the tariff for swearing? Chile seemingly acted because it had two players banned in not dissimilar circumstances after the 3-0 defeat to Uruguay earlier in the qualifying campaign.
Jorge Valdivia was given a four-game ban for his post-match protests, while Eduardo Vargas was suspended for two matches for making obscene gestures at fans. Gary Medel and Valdivia (again) were both banned for four qualifiers last year after being red-carded in games for abusing referees.
Working out what word or gesture deserves what punishment seems like a nightmarishly complex process, particularly when it crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries. Does FIFA have some sort of obscenity ombudsman to decide just how offensive something is? There certainly needs to be more explanation if they’re to head off the allegations, widespread in Argentina, that Messi is being penalized extra harshly for having snubbed their "The Best" awards ceremony in January.
Best Photos of Lionel Messi
A young Lionel Messi poses for a photo in Argentina circa 1993.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina's second goal against Venezuela during a South American Under-20 Championship game on Jan. 13, 2005 in Armenia, Colombia.
Lionel Messi flips into a pool during a relaxed practice of Argentina's Under-20 soccer team on Jan. 14, 2005 in Pereira, Colombia.
Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy after Argentina won the FIFA World Youth Championships over Nigeria on July 2, 2005 in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Lionel Messi poses with the Golden Boy trophy awarded by Italian magazine 'Tuttosport' distinguishing the best player under-21 on Dec. 14, 2005 in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Rafael Marquez celebrate after defeating Espanyol to win the Spanish League on May 6, 2006 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Khalid Boulahrouz and Lionel Messi challenge for the ball during the World Cup Group C soccer match between the Netherlands and Argentina on June 21, 2006 at the World Cup stadium in Frankfurt, Germany.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores with his hand during a Spanish League match against Espanyol on June 9, 2007 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. Messi continued to draw comparisons with Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona who scored in similar fashion during a quarterfinal World Cup match against England in 1986.
Argentina's Lionel Messi plays the ball during the 2008 Summer Olympics Men's Soccer semifinal against Brazil on Aug. 19, 2008 at Beijing Workers' Stadium in China.
Argentina's Lionel Messi plays the ball during the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match against Mexico on June 27, 2010 at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lionel Messi and girlfriend Antonella Rocuzzo swim with dolphins at the Delphinus aquarium on July 24, 2010 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi from vies for the ball with Getafe's goalkeeper Jordi Codina during their La Liga match on Nov. 7, 2010 at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez in Getafe, near Madrid, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after scoring against Real Madrid during their semifinal, 1st leg Champions League soccer match on April 27, 2011 at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi reacts after scoring against Osasuna during their La Liga match on Sept. 17, 2011 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi duels for the ball with Real Madrid's Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao during their La Liga match on April 21, 2012 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with Gonzalo Higuain after scoring against Ecuador during their World Cup qualifying match on June 2, 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Argentina's Lionel Messi makes a header during an International Friendly against Brazil on June 9, 2012 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Real Madrid during their La Liga match on Oct. 7, 2012 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi smiles during a news conference after receiving his Golden Boot award in recognition for scoring the most goals in Europe's domestic leagues on Oct. 29, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi poses with his four FIFA Men's World Player of the Year awards before a Copa del Rey match against Malaga on Jan. 16, 2013 at the Camp Nou stadium, in Barcelona, Spain. Messi received the award for a record-breaking fourth successive year.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi kicks the ball during their La Liga match against Rayo Vallecano on March 17, 2013 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring the opening goal during their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal match against Paris Saint-Germain on April 2, 2013 at Parc des Princes in Paris, France.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds his son Thiago as they sit next to the trophy after winning the La Liga match against Real Valladolid on May 19, 2013 at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi plays the ball during their La Liga match against Espanyol on March 29, 2014 at Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain.
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the FIFA World Cup Group F match against Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 15, 2014 at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates Angel di Maria and Marcos Rojo after scoring their first goal during the FIFA World Cup Group F match against Nigeria on June 25, 2014 at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil
Belgium's Vincent Kompany and Argentina's Lionel Messi fight for the ball during the FIFA World Cup quarterfinal match on July 5, 2014 at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores his team's fourth goal during the La Liga match against Granada CF on Sept. 27, 2014 at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the La Liga match against Sevilla FC on Nov. 22, 2014 at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
FIFA Ballon d'Or nominee Lionel Messi poses for a portrait prior to the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala on Jan. 12, 2015 at the Park Hyatt hotel in Zurich, Switzerland.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi attempts a bicycle kick against Valencia's Nicolas Otamendi during their La Liga match on April 18, 2015 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi plays with his son Thiago after the La Liga match against Deportivo La Coruna on May 23, 2015 at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after the Champions League final match victory over Juventus F.C. on June 6, 2015 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany.
Argentina's Lionel Messi kicks the ball during their Copa America semifinal match against Paraguay on June 30, 2015 at the Estadio Municipal de Concepcion in Chile.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores his side's second goal past Roma goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny during their Group E Champions League match on Nov. 24, 2015 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
It may be that Argentina can appeal against the decision and have the ban reduced (there’s some suggestion that the AFA probably could have forced a stay until the next round of qualifiers but, perhaps wisely, decided that if Messi has to miss any game, one at altitude in Bolivia probably isn’t too damaging). But his absence will be felt.
Argentina sits third in the CONMEBOL table with the top four sides to qualify automatically and the fifth-place team facing a playoff against the best side from Oceania. It is, though, very tight, with second separated from sixth by three points. The victory over Chile was ugly and far from impressive, the passing dismal (on an awful pitch at El Monumental) and fluency absent. Bauza claimed he would give his side 10 out of 10 and insisted the game had been “closed” as soon as Messi had converted a 15th-minute penalty, but that ignored the fact that Chile had had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside and that Alexis Sanchez struck the bar.
Messi is pretty much the only thing that has been keeping Argentina moving forward. Of the six qualifiers he has played for the 2018 World Cup, Argentina has won five; of the seven he has not, it has won one. There is a Leo-dependence just as surely as there used to be a Diego-dependence.
And even playing in Bolivia will evoke dismal memories. Argentina lost there in 1969 on the last occasion it failed to qualify for a World Cup. It was hammered 6-1 there under Diego Maradona as it scraped qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Even four years ago, under Alejandro Sabella, it only managed a 1-1 draw.
Perhaps hardship, the sense the world is against Argentina, can galvanize team spirit. That is, after all, the way Bauza likes to work: he is a master with underdogs, as he showed in taking Liga de Quito and San Lorenzo to the Copa Libertadores. But the ban has made Argentina’s qualification campaign even more of a struggle than it already was and left FIFA with profound questions to answer.