Lionel Messi is free to represent Argentina in their forthcoming World Cup qualifiers after his suspension for allegedly abusing an assistant referee was overturned on appeal.
The 29-year-old Barcelona striker was banned from four international matches and fined 10,000 Swiss francs (£8,100) for supposedly “having directed insulting words” at an official during Argentina’s World Cup qualifying meeting with Chile on March 23.
He was banned for the subsequent 2-0 loss to Bolivia as a result but will return to contention as under-performing Argentina prepare for crucial meetings with Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru as they fight to secure a place at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.
A statement from the sport’s world governing body FIFA published on Friday read: “The FIFA appeal committee has upheld the appeal lodged by the Argentinian Football Association, on behalf of the player Lionel Messi, against the decision taken by the FIFA disciplinary committee, lifting the sanctions imposed on him as a result.”
During the Chile game, Messi was caught on camera venting his fury at an assistant who signalled he had committed a foul late on in Argentina’s 1-0 win. He was not shown a card at the time.
Despite upholding Argentina’s appeal the FIFA committee stressed it “considered Messi’s behaviour as reproachable” but concluded “the evidence available was not sufficient to establish” an infringement had occurred.
The statement continued: “The Appeal Committee nevertheless underlines the importance of always showing respect to the match officials, stressing that such a principle is essential in football and any unsporting conduct that may be contrary to the principles of fair play cannot be accepted.”
When Messi was first punished his club Barcelona released an angry statement expressing their “surprise and outrage”, adding that the Rosario-born forward was an “exemplary sportsman”.
His fresh availability for international duty could be a missed blessing for the Catalans, however.
Argentina, currently without a head coach following the April departure of Edgardo Bauza, risk missing out on automatic qualification for 2018 World Cup and to that end the trip to Uruguay in late August will be vital.
If picked, Messi will remain in South America to face Venezuela on September 5.
By the time the Albiceleste tackle Peru in October they will have hoped to climb into the top four places in the CONMEBOL standings, while Barca will be suitably keen to see their star man return to Spain uninjured.