If Argentina is celebrating atop the podium at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018–or, if recent history is any indication, its players are accepting runner-up medals–we likely won't be giving much thought to a day more than 14 months earlier as an important part of the process. But we should.
FIFA's lifting of the remaining ban on Lionel Messi should pave the way for Argentina to punch its ticket to Russia and ensure the South American power doesn't miss out on the last World Cup of Messi's prime years. Without him for three of the remaining four qualifiers, as had been the original punishment for verbally abusing a match official, Argentina's place would have been far less certain.
It's no secret that Argentina has been overly reliant on Messi, despite a cast of talented stars that is the envy of most nations around the world. From Angel Di Maria to Sergio Aguero to Juventus teammates Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain and on down the line, they haven't been able to succeed without its talisman in the center of it all. Since Alejandro Sabella managed the team to a second-place finish in Brazil in 2014, two managers (Tata Martino and Edgardo Bauza) have gone, with a third (reported to be Jorge Sampaoli) on the way.
The one constant to Argentina's success has been Messi. Argentina has won five of the six World Cup qualifiers in which he has played. Of the eight he has not been a part of, Argentina has just one win.
The circumstances around Messi's ban seemed curious at best. He was suspended for verbally abusing a referee during a World Cup qualifier against Chile (why are Messi's most harrowing moments always against Chile these days?!), though the referee did not indicate as much in his match report. Nobody is condoning the berating of referees, but then how is a four-game ban being enforced based after an opposing team's federation sends the confederation video of the confrontation after the fact, as has been reported, and exactly what words are the magic ones that turn a more standard ban into a four-game episode?
FIFA wrote in a statement following Thursday's appeal hearing: "Despite the fact that the FIFA Appeal Committee considered Lionel Messi’s behavior as reproachable, 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 FDC, 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."
In short: Berating referees is bad, there wasn't enough evidence to merit a four-game suspension, don't berate referees. Got it.
Lionel Messi SI cover shoot outtakes
Messi already had to miss one qualifier as a result of the initial ban, sitting out a 2-0 loss in La Paz to Bolivia. That loss dropped Argentina down to fifth place, two points clear of sixth-place Ecuador–but only two points behind second-place Colombia–with four matches to go in a tight qualifying process. CONMEBOL's top four finishers earn an automatic berth (Brazil has already punched its ticket), while the fifth-place finisher goes into an intercontinental playoff against the Oceania winner.
As we've seen in the past with a number of teams, most notably Mexico in 2014 and potentially the United States in this cycle, struggles in the process don't necessarily dictate poor tournament performance. Just qualifying for the World Cup is all that matters, and a clean slate is provided from there, and at this point, it is one that Argentina would surely accept.
Argentina's remaining matches are at Uruguay, home against Venezuela and Peru and then at Ecuador, the latter of which Messi would have been able to play regardless of his appeal. In the confines of South American qualifying, there are no sure things, but with Messi and the security blanket he provides, you'd expect Argentina to win the last three at the very least. Colombia and Chile, two of the teams ahead of Argentina, still must play Brazil, while Ecuador must play at Brazil and at Chile before hosting the showdown with the Albiceleste. While it's no easy task, the cards remain in Argentina's favor, and it's much more comfortable to feel that way with Messi available for selection.
At some point, Argentina will have to sort out its problem of being too Messi-reliant. But that's better than sorting out the problem of having to play without him for the most important matches of its World Cup qualifying quest.