ZURICH • Argentina forward Lionel Messi has been banned from their next four competitive internationals, starting with this morning's (Singapore time) World Cup qualifier in Bolivia, for swearing at a match official, world governing body Fifa said yesterday.
The decision, with a fine of 10,000 Swiss francs (S$14,160) was announced less than six hours before kick-off in La Paz and means that the five-time World Player of the Year will play in only one of the remaining five qualifiers.
His absence will be a severe blow to the two-time world champions, who are struggling in the marathon South American campaign where their results have included home defeats by Ecuador and Paraguay and a 3-0 mauling by arch-rivals Brazil.
Fifa said Messi had "directed insulting words at an assistant referee" during the 1-0 win over Chile on Friday, in which he scored the only goal from a penalty.
Television pictures showed him swearing at Brazilian linesman Emerson Augusto do Carvalho at the end of the match after being harried and fouled by Chilean player Jean Beausejour.
The official patted him on the head and tried to calm him down but Messi kept ranting.
Fifa said in a letter to the Argentinian Football Association, published by the Argentinian media, that the incident was not detailed in the referee's report at the time and was brought to their attention by the media.
According to the letter, Carvalho said he did not understand then what Messi was saying. "I only realised he was swearing afterwards on reading the press," he said.
Messi, 29, will also miss games away to Uruguay and at home to Venezuela and Peru. The Barcelona forward will be eligible again when Argentina visit Ecuador on Oct 10.
Argentina are third in the 10-team South American group with 22 points from 13 games but have only a two-point cushion over sixth-placed Chile, with Colombia (21) and Ecuador (20) sandwiched in between. The top four qualify directly for Russia 2018 and the fifth-placed side play off against the Oceania qualifying group winners.
"This decision is in line with the Fifa Disciplinary Committee's previous rulings in similar cases," the federation said.
Messi has not enjoyed the same success with Argentina as he has with his club Barcelona and announced his international retirement earlier this year before back-tracking on his decision.
He was frustrated after they lost 0-1 after extra-time to Germany in the World Cup final in 2014, then on penalties to Chile in the Copa America the following year and again on penalties to Chile in the Copa Centenario final last year.