Lionel Messi has denied verbally abusing an official during Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile last week after he was given a four-match ban by Fifa, ruling him out of the majority of his country’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Messi was banned six hours before Argentina’s qualifier against Bolivia on Tuesday, which they went on to lose 2-0 without their talismanic forward, for saying “f*** off, the c*** of your mother” towards assistant referee Dewson Silva.
However, despite Fifa choosing to ban Messi for his comments, the Barcelona forward claims he did not aim them at Silva and instead was saying them out loud.
“My comments were never directed at the first assistant, they were comments made to the air,” Messi said, according to the Argentinian Football Association.
Messi’s absence on Tuesday night hurt Argentina’s efforts to reach the World Cup, with Argentina now outside the top four automatic qualification berths and facing a potential play-off if they finish fifth. They are far from safe though, as this week’s defeat in Bolivia leaves them just two points above sixth-placed Ecuador – who they meet in their final qualifier after games against Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru.
Messi has also been defended by former Argentina international and fellow football great Diego Maradona, who says he will speak with Fifa president Gianni Infantino about the length of the sanction that Messi received.
Speaking to La Oral Deportivo, Maradona said: "I am going to speak with Infantino, I think it's terrible.
"Four games is a lot. However, the seriousness of Messi's words are also very strong, but I think it can be changed."
The 1986 World Cup winner also labelled Messi a “teddy bear” in an attempt to display his soft approach, with the 56-year-old insisting that his good nature should have been taken into account when deciding the length of the ban.
"He is a sensational person and doesn't do anything except train," Maradona added. "He is a teddy bear with his teammates, with everyone."