Nicolás Miremont –
The world is still amazed after what seemed like a usual sight in the game between Argentina and Chile on March 23 ended up jeopardizing the former’s chances of going to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Lionel Messi has been accused by the Discipline Committee of FIFA of “utilizing injurious expressions” with one of the officials during and after the game. This shall cost the Argentine the sum of 10,000 Swiss francs and, most importantly, a sanction of four World Cup Qualifying matches. Such punishment could not have come at a worse time for Argentina, which has already been in crisis mode for months.
Despite the legitimacy of the action taken by FIFA, there are a number of questions to be asked, regarding the fairness of the decision, as well whether it could have been avoided by the player. We will also take a look at the indirect responsibility of the Argentine Football Association in this incident.
Watch your mouth, young man
After a rather dreadful match for the Albiceleste, which was considered by most experts a must-win, the topic regarding Messi’s altercations with the first linesman, Emerson Augusto de Carvalho, was rapidly overshadowed by the poor image left by the team.
Clearly frustrated by the performance of the team and the defensive approach chosen by the Argentinian head coach, Edgardo Bauza, prior to taking on Chile, Messi lost his usual self-control. Even though Argentina had to suffer considerably to get the win that day, the captain took brunt of the abuse as he was repeatedly fouled by the Chilean defence.
Approaching the end of the match, la Pulga was dashing down the right-hand side with the ball at his feet. Immediately after him was Jean Beausejour, who used his arms to stop the Argentine from gaining any more terrain. The Chilean eventually got the ball off him. Messi’s reaction was to try to re-gain possession, although, this time, the linesman decided to award the Chilean a free kick. Fuming, Messi returned to his position and, at the same time clearly insulting the official (judging from what we can interpret by reading his lips).
Then, after the final whistle, the quarrel continued as Messi approached the three officials in order to shake their hands. One of them was obviously lacking in diplomacy. Messi rapidly went face-to-face with him and used the opportunity to complain once again, evidently in a rude manner. Mister De Carvalho, on the other hand, chose to divert the tension and tried to calm Lionel Messi by patting the back of his head, as shown on the video below this paragraph. The gesture was seen by some as a way of making peace with Messi, and by others as a provocation.
Then, following the match on March 27, FIFA communicated its decision to officially sanction the Argentine playmaker: “In application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) […] Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating article 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.”
Argentina’s nightmare is only getting worse
Although the situation in the country is finally getting to a more stable point, there are still many things at stake. With a new television deal, new investments hopefully on the horizon, a narrow escape from not qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup, the AFA Presidential election due to take place on March 29, and the designation of Marcelo Tinelli as the new National Teams Commissioner, Argentina seems to have (finally) met its agenda. Better late than never!
Nevertheless, with four qualifying rounds to go, Argentina is at risk of missing the World Cup, the nation’s ultimate obsession. With a disappointing 6-4-4 record, Bauza’s men are far from their best form and certainly below their expected level. Going to Russia is almost compulsory for this team if they wish to shake their underachieving image and avoid a social cataclysm.
This sanction at such a critical time, as you may have already imagined, does not help the country’s cause at all. Sitting in fifth and with difficult rivals both home and away, Bauza will have to prove all of us wrong and demonstrate that he can play efficiently without Messi. His defensive system has not provided any sort of light in Argentina’s uncertain path towards regaining its world-class status while, at the same time, he has refused to replace certain players in a team which desperately needs a breath of fresh air.
Messi made a big mistake
Several players have confessed to feeling under crushing pressure while playing for the Selección. Take Agüero, for example. His contribution to the team stopped ten years ago after he won the Olympic Gold. Since then, el Kun’s contributions to the cause have been limited and he often admitting to suffering while wearing the national team shirt.
Let’s try to picture, then, how Messi must feel while playing for his country. Since his debut, he was given the task of satisfying a whole generation of nostalgic Diego Maradona fundamentalists who had endured decades of failure. If Agüero, who plays because of his friendship with Messi, suffers, then Messi must experience the closest thing to being on the brink of a mental breakdown every time he takes to the pitch to defend his national shirt.
The critics do not help either. The weight of losing three consecutive finals seems to obscure Messi’s status as the all-time leading goal scorer, and the fact that he has been the person responsible for these last years of Argentina’s prominence in the global stage. This harsh treatment and the dreadful level of the team may have made him go mad over a thing as unimportant as a foul in the 94th minute.
Now, was it the wisest reaction? Of course not! Even though I don’t expect a competitive sport to be without insults (some people do), the situation could have been avoided if a more subtle approach had been used by Messi to express his frustration.
According to FIFA, this sanction followed the same rigorousness shown in previous sanctions: “This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases”.
It is actually odd that FIFA decided to punish someone with such a remarkable career for a couple of rude words towards an official who did not even note the incident in his match report. The cameras, however, do not lie. Messi should not have insulted anyone. That said, if you, like me, consider such mischief a part of our beloved game, I will just say that covering his mouth would have been enough.
AFA is not protecting its football
We will not say that “Con Grondona esto no pasaba” (With Grondona these things did not happen). Although…it is true, our current situation is entirely Grondona’s fault. Anyway, ever since the FIFA Gate scandal compromised most of its leaders, including Blatter and Grondona, Argentina has been kept under close scrutiny by Gianni Infantino.
This is added to the evident uselessness of the Normalizing Committee, who have failed in everything they set their minds to.
The sanction arouses, once again, the debate over whether Argentina is benefited by the authorities or not. Despite the popular opinion which uses Grondona as a proof demonstrating FIFA’s bias towards the country, little did the supposed bias matter when we lost the final after an imaginary penalty in 1990, when Maradona was taken off the field like a criminal in 1994.
Back to the present, Argentina has caused FIFA more than one headache over the course of the past months. Clemency is not expected, but resentment may be behind an excessive four-match ban for an insult.
However, this situation could have been avoided once again, this time from the part not related to the actual game. The lack of a proper project regarding the future is slowly taking its toll amongst every category of our football. Tata Martino had a project. He lost two finals within the blink of an eye but his team played well. Too bad the AFA owed him more than six months of salary.
Today, we find ourselves lost in desperation as the water keeps rising. There is a reason behind the excuses of those who refuse the charge: taking up the Argentine national team has gone from being the ultimate honour to being a sacrifice for your country; a sacrifice which you know beforehand will cost you most of your prestige and part of your life expectancy depending on how well you do.
The AFA desperately needs to start functioning again under the real guidance of a governing body, which can provide some support for those playing the game, which are constantly out of cover and suffering the consequences of the economical and institutional crisis. Provided this happens, an appeal will have more likelihood of being taken into consideration. After that, we can make sure that Argentina recovers its status as a football superpower and thus does not fail to dominate the qualifiers again.
Conspiracy theories, anyone?
Finally, the topic we have all been waiting for. Is there any sort of conspiracy against Argentina? Overall it seems highly unlikely. However, no one would be surprised if there were, given the culture of South American football.
First theory: Chile – The neighbours have consolidated a solid football project on the other side of the Andes, which has already proven to be better than ours. With Argentina being one of their threatening rivals in the fight for one of the qualifying spots, Chile is rumoured to be behind the pressure put on FIFA to make Messi’s sanction a reality.
Whether it was them or not, this situation is highly positive for Chile’s interests in the World Cup. And before we move on, I would like to clarify that, if Chile had appealed to FIFA asking for Messi to be sanctioned, they had the right to do it. I would have done the same.
Second theory: Maradona – Diego did not end his relationship with the AFA on good terms. His relationship with the AFA has had several ups and downs. Today, in clear enmity with the clubs’ leaders who he thinks are responsible for the crisis, Maradona is said to have used his “friendship” (as he calls it) with Infantino in order to get Messi sanctioned and, therefore, to destabilize Argentina’s course.
This could make sense given his cynical approach to life and his discomfort with the AFA’s decision of appointing Tinelli, whom Diego loathes, as the National Team’s Commissioner, a decision he could not stand and which led him to decide to quit as a FIFA ambassador.
Third theory: D’Onofrio – This is where it gets ridiculous. The third theory is the least discussed so I will provide you with only a brief analysis.
Rodolfo D’Onofrio is River Plate’s president. The new governing body of AFA, which was supposed to take power on March 29, has Claudio Tapia as its President and Daniel Angelici as its Vice-President. This list is obviously disliked by the River Plate leader, who could have apparently persuaded FIFA to sanction Messi in the hope of making things worse for the new AFA (which he will be a part of anyway).
Yes, we are so bonkers.
What now for Argentina?
We will have to wait until August to witness the effect of this sanction. Until then, many things could happen. Bauza could (be forced to) leave the charge and Messi could retire if the sanction is not reduced.
The next match against third-placed Uruguay in Montevideo will be the toughest challenge for the Selección. After that, there will be two consecutive home matches against Venezuela and Perú. Getting at least six points out of the nine possible would give Argentina one last chance against Ecuador in the last round with Messi’s return, provided that Chile or Colombia lose points in the process.
In the meantime, Argentina has plenty of time to think about its future. This is the Messi some people wanted to see, because they could not stand the meek one who took us and a bunch of less-than-worthy teammates to three consecutive finals. There we have it, yet another chapter in this horror story, which is rapidly approaching a tragic ending.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico