The news that Lionel Messi would miss four crucial World Cup qualifiers dropped like a brick in Argentina. The usual conspiracy theories about FIFA cynically undermining the Albiceleste's efforts to qualify for the World Cup quickly surfaced but soon another culprit was singled out.
The pervading public opinion is that the Argentine Football Association (AFA) is responsible for this extremely harsh punishment— and it's easy to understand why.
"Under Grondona this wouldn't happen," is the phrase being repeated around bars, newsrooms and television studios since Messi's ban was announced early on Tuesday.
The crippling financial, institutional and organisational problems that the AFA has suffered since the passing of the old caudillo Julio Humberto Grondona in 2014 are real, even if many are directly related to the former president's authoritarian grip on the body that he controlled for 35 years.
Those problems came to a head at the end of 2015 with a farcical election. Interim president Luis Segura and media mogul Marcelo Tinelli were tied 38-38 when all the votes were counted, an unusual outcome given the fact that only 75 committee members cast ballots.
Less than a year later, the AFA was officially investigated by FIFA, on the back of serious judicial allegations concerning corruption, kick-backs and other illicit activities that implicated everyone from Grondona to important figures within the government.
Armando Perez, a close ally of current President of Argentina Mauricio Macri, was chosen to be the temporary head of a Normalisation Committee that would rewrite AFA statutes and bring the body into line with FIFA guidelines. That has proven easier said than done. At the start of March, Gianni Infantino warned that "drastic measures will be required. We need stability and for Argentine football to be properly administered."
The requirement that FIFA insisted upon — which almost led to a suspension from activities that would have seen March's games against Chile and Bolivia conceded on a walkover — was for an outside body to vet the suitability of the new AFA president. The body chosen by the Argentines was the local College of Lawyers, the bastion of Boca Juniors president and AFA vice-president Daniel Angelici, thus creating a clear conflict of interests.
Whatever due diligence was carried out, a candidate was eventually found. Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia (above), president of third-tier Barracas Central, son-in-law of Independiente chief and union boss Hugo Moyano and the head of the CEAMSE waste management enterprise, headed a 'unity' list that conveniently does not require another election, and coincidentally will take up his new role on Wednesday.
Tinelli, that former aspirant to the biggest job, will take over the role of Director of the National Team - a move that also strained relations with Infantino. Tinelli has a rather powerful enemy in Zurich, none other than Diego Maradona, who went as far as to resign from his role as FIFA ambassador this week when the AFA refused to remove Tinelli from the equation.
"I have handed my resignation to Infantino," the 1986 World Cup winner fired in a parting shot. "I worked for the FIFA in Korea (hosting the Under-20 World Cup draw) and Tinelli has only ever worked in (Primetime television show) Showmatch."
Tapia's ascendancy, meanwhile, has been accompanied by official complaints over his suitability, with criminal accusations of fraud in public administration following him into office. If FIFA hoped that their 12-month long intervention into the governing body would help to impose a new air of transparency and fair play, it has been brutally disabused of that notion.
It is only a matter of speculation whether Messi's four-game ban is retribution for the hell FIFA officials have gone through in recent months trying to reorder the intransigent AFA, or if Infantino was standing up for Maradona, his biggest cheerleader who, after his bitter criticism of Sepp Blatter, lends an authoritative football voice for schemes such as the 48-team World Cup.
It has even been claimed that Messi has been punished for failing to attend the inaugural FIFA Best Player award ceremony earlier this year, although that line of thinking borders on tinfoil-hat paranoia.
What is clear is that the AFA, who failed to even restart the Primera Division on time in 2017 amid endless wrangling over television rights and player salaries, has lost all influence in football's most powerful forum. Normalisation Committee chief Perez cut a sad figure on Tuesday as he learned of Messi's suspension through a television channel.
"The truth is I am reading the headlines; we haven't received anything, I am being told [the ban] is on the FIFA website; in the AFA we have nothing," he toldTyC Sports, in as telling a confession of the organisation's impotence as we are ever likely to hear.
"If it is on the official website, we have to think that it is true."
Perez went on to state he would not be involved in the appeal, leaving that hot potato firmly in the hands of Tapia as he settles into his new office. He has an uphill task. The AFA has blundered from one disaster to another since Grondona passed away, and it is hard not to see the link between this chaos and the hefty punishment laid down on the symbol of Argentine football.