FIFA announced Tuesday that it suspended soccer megastar Lionel Messi for four international matches over an incident that took place during a World Cup qualifier between Argentina and Chile on Thursday. According to world soccer’s governing body, Messi “directed insulting words at an assistant referee.”
Messi will serve the first game of the suspension on Tuesday afternoon when Argentina visits Bolivia in another World Cup qualifier. The team’s captain and all-time leading goal scorer also will sit out Argentina’s next three World Cup qualifiers in August, September and October, returning for the team’s final qualifying match against Ecuador on Oct. 10. In 2018 World Cup qualifiers played without Messi, Argentina has amassed just seven of a possible 21 points.
According to ESPNFC, Messi shouted profane insults at assistant referee Emerson Carvalho after he was whistled for a foul late in Thursday’s match against Chile. He then refused to shake hands with Carvalho after the game.
The incident was not initially reported by the main referee on the official match report.
“I did not hear any offensive language from Messi or anyone else towards myself. … If I had heard any offensive word, I would have acted in according the rules of the game,” the head referee, Brazilian Sandro Ricci, said in documents from the FIFA inquiry that were obtained by the Argentine newspaper Ole. Nevertheless, it was judged a red-card offense.
An Argentine soccer official said the team will appeal the ruling — saying there is a precedent that suggests the penalty could be reduced — and described Messi as “beaten and sad” over the news.
The news was greeted with surprise from some unusual corners of the world, including Bolivia, where President Evo Morales took the side of the Argentina, against whom his national team was set to play.
“I do not agree with sanctions against Argentina,” Morales said in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. “I know something about football, and #Messi was fouled. My solidarity is with the best soccer player in the world.”
Argentina, which reached the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, sits third in the South American World Cup qualifying standings, just one point ahead of fourth-place Colombia and two clear of Ecuador and Chile. The top four teams in the final table will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the fifth-place team taking on the champion from Oceania in a two-leg playoff to decide another bid in November.