LA PAZ • Argentina, deprived of Lionel Messi after he received a four-match ban hours before kick-off, were beaten 2-0 in Bolivia on Tuesday to put their qualification chances for next year's football World Cup in Russia in doubt.
Juan Carlos Arce put the home side ahead with a first-half header and Marcelo Martins added a second eight minutes after the break.
Argentina have not missed a World Cup Finals since 1970 but are fifth in the South American qualification table. The first four qualify directly.
Messi was banned by Fifa for using "insulting words" against an assistant referee in Argentina's qualifier against Chile last week which they won 1-0, thanks to his penalty.
According to The New York Times, the forward was called for a foul by the assistant referee Emerson Carvalho in the second half.
With or without their Messi-ah
With Lionel Messi in the team, Argentina have won five games out of six in their South American World Cup qualifiers. Without their talisman, they have won only one out of eight games.
Even if Argentina (fifth in the table on 22 points) are able to halve Messi's four-match ban via an appeal, they next face a tough visit to Uruguay (third on 23 points) without their captain at the end of August. They would hope to win the home games against bottom side Venezuela (Sept 5) and seventh-placed Peru (Oct 5), the final two games of their record scorer's suspension, without him.
With Brazil already sealing their place in Russia, Argentina face an uphill task in securing one of the three remaining automatic qualifying spots.
It could boil down to their last match on Oct 10 when he will return to take on Ecuador (sixth on 20 points) in Quito, 2,850m above sea level.
Messi strongly disagreed with the ruling and waved his arms and shouted at Carvalho, a Brazilian.
He did not get a 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.
The length of the suspension was a surprise. Many commentators and football figures were expecting a one- or two-game ban, at most.
"The federation will appeal, as it should," team secretary Jorge Miadosqui told Agence France-Presse. "We feel powerless, surprised."
Yesterday, Messi's club Barcelona described the ban as "unjust and totally disproportionate".
Barcelona's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez also felt the penalty was unfair. "I find Messi's ban totally excessive," he told Sport 890. "Now they will have to do the same with all the players that hurl insults."
Former Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti pointed out that what Messi did was not that serious.
"Messi made a mistake and he should be punished but not with four games," Menotti told Cadena Ser.
"Messi has never done that before, not with the national team or with Barcelona."
Menotti said the pressure that led Messi to briefly retire from international duty after losing his third final with Argentina last year was the reason for the player's uncharacteristic reaction against Chile.
"I think this (Messi's reaction) is linked with the despair in Argentina's football and that is transmitted to the players," Menotti said.
"Messi has led Argentina to three finals and he is under pressure to deliver. Someone should explain to Messi that he is not responsible for making Argentina win but rather to help Argentina play better. Of course, to replace Messi is impossible."
That was clearly evident on Tuesday when Messi's replacement, Atletico Madrid's Angel Correa, made little impact against Bolivia.
Argentina, already without suspended regulars Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia and Gonzalo Higuain, struggled as Bolivia tore into them from the start.
Their defence capitulated under the onslaught at the Estadio Hernando Siles and they were fortunate not to lose by a bigger margin.
The defeat was costly for Argentina, who slipped from third to fifth in the South American qualifying standings after Tuesday's games. Four teams advance automatically from the region, while the fifth faces a play-off against a team from the Oceania region.
Edgardo Bauza's side will be without their captain for three of their final four qualifiers and, if Tuesday's performance is any guide, Messi - who has four goals in qualifiers so far, the most in the team - will be sorely missed.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN