Diego Maradona has described Lionel Messi as a ‘teddy bear’ and has vowed to confront FIFA president Gianni Infantino over his four-match international ban for swearing at a linesman. Argentina’s hopes of qualifying for next summer’s World Cup in Russia were dealt a body blow when world football’s governing body handed the Barcelona star the hefty punishment for his outburst during their 1-0 win over Chile last Thursday.
With Messi set to miss all but one of Argentina’s remaining qualifiers, it doesn’t bode well that they lost 2-0 in Bolivia without their talisman earlier this week. Although the Argentine Football Association plan to appeal to FIFA over the ban, Maradona is taking his protestations straight to the top. He told radio show La Oral Deportivo: ‘I am going to speak with Infantino, I think it’s terrible. ‘Four games is a lot. The seriousness of Messi’s words are also very strong, but I think it [the suspension] can be changed. ‘He is a sensational person and doesn’t do anything except train. He is a teddy bear with his team-mates, with everyone.’
The Argentine FA insist that Messi’s outburst was made ‘to the air’ and not directly to the official, but it remains to be seen whether the ban will be reduced. Worryingly, Argentina have won just one of the seven World Cup 2018 qualifiers they have played without the Barcelona star, as opposed to winning five of six that he has played in. At present, Argentina sit fifth in the South American qualification group, with four matches left to complete.
They are currently on course for an inter-confederation play-off against the winner of the Oceania qualifying tournament. And Maradona suggested his country should look to Portugal – who won the final of the European Championship last season despite an injury to star man Cristiano Ronaldo early in the game – for inspiration. He added: ‘Messi’s absence is crucial. Argentina with Messi are one thing, and quite another without. ‘If you take Ronaldo out of Portugal, they’re still a winning team. It’s the same with Real Madrid, and Barca, too.’