Argentina forward Lionel Messi argued with the assistant referee Emerson Carvalho during a World Cup qualifier on Thursday against Chile
Lionel Messi was barred for Argentina’s next four games after he used “insulting words” with an official, FIFA ruled on Tuesday.
The length of the suspension was a surprise: Many commentators and soccer figures were expecting a one- or two-game ban, at most.
The ban begins immediately: Messi will miss Tuesday’s qualifier against Bolivia. It does not apply to games for his club, Barcelona.
He was also fined 10,000 Swiss francs, or about $10,200.
The suspension came only hours before the game: Argentina was due to kick off in La Paz, Bolivia, at 4 p.m. Eastern.
“The federation will appeal, as it should,” the team secretary Jorge Miadosqui told Agence France-Presse. “We feel powerless, surprised.”
Messi was called for a foul by the assistant referee Emerson Carvalho in the second half of Thursday’s game in Chile. He strongly disagreed with the ruling and waved his arms and shouted at Carvalho, a Brazilian. He did not get a yellow or red card for his actions at the time.
After the game, he shook the hands of two officials, then pointedly did not shake Carvalho’s hand.
Argentina won, 1-0, with Messi scoring the lone goal on a penalty.
With 13 of 18 games played, Argentina stands third in South American qualifying, with four teams to advance automatically. But the race is tight. Argentina is only 2 points ahead of sixth-place Chile and 4 ahead of seventh-place Paraguay.
Messi has been the star of Argentina for years. Although he has only four goals in qualifiers so far, that still leads the team.
At least one Argentine official was not expecting a suspension. “I think Messi is going to play,” Armando Pérez of the Argentine federation told TyC Sports, a sports channel in Argentina. “I do not see many arguments. FIFA is very punctilious.”
Argentina has been on a run of strong but ultimately disappointing results in major tournaments. The team was the runner-up in the 2014 World Cup and the Copa América in 2015 and 2016.
Barring a successful appeal, Messi will also miss games at Uruguay in August, versus Venezuela in September and versus Peru in October. He could return for Argentina’s final qualifier, in Ecuador on Oct. 10.
The suspension could almost be a blessing for Messi’s Barcelona career: He will now get the summer off, and if his absence means Argentina misses the 2018 World Cup, he will get next summer off, too.
That will be little consolation to Argentina, which has not missed a World Cup since 1970.