Argentina's hopes of reaching next year’s World Cup were given a huge boost on Friday after FIFA overturned Lionel Messi’s four-game ban for swearing at an assistant referee, but is not good news for Uruguay and Ecuador, Argentina's next rivals and with chances of qualifying.
FIFA said there was not enough evidence to support the stiff punishment meted out in March to the 29-year-old Barcelona striker, who is central to Argentina’s faltering bid to get to Russia 2018.
Football’s governing body said its appeal committee sided with a challenge filed on Messi’s behalf by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and lifted “the sanctions imposed on him as a result”.
“Despite the fact that the FIFA Appeal Committee considered Lionel Messi’s behavior as reproachable” it concluded “the evidence available was not sufficient” to justify a four-game international ban.
The ruling also means Messi will be spared the 10,000 Swiss francs (US$10,000) fine.
The superstar was originally found guilty of “having directed insulting words at an assistant referee” in a World Cup qualifier against Chile which Argentina won 1-0 thanks to a penalty from the Barcelona hit-man.
Argentine football officials conceded that Messi’s foul-mouthed tirade was wrong but argued that FIFA’s sanction was disproportionate and politically motivated.
Argentina desperately need their star because they risk failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1970. They have won only one of eight World Cup 2018 qualifiers played without Messi, compared to five out of six won with him on the pitch.
They are fifth in World Cup qualifying in South America, with only the top four earning automatic places in Russia. The fifth place finisher can still qualify by winning a playoff against the winners of the Oceania region.
The AFA fired coach Edgardo Bauza following a damaging March defeat to Bolivia -- Messi was absent because of the ban.
He can now however return when qualifying resumes in August with a clash against Uruguay, followed by matches against Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.