GENEVA — Lionel Messi is banned from Argentina's next four World Cup qualifying games, dealing a blow to a campaign by the 2014 runner-up that has stuttered without him.
Messi's suspension for "having directed insulting words at an assistant referee" during a home qualifier last week against Chile started on Tuesday, shortly before his teammates played Bolivia in La Paz.
Without Messi, Argentina went on to lose the qualifier 2-0.
The five-time FIFA player of the year can appeal to FIFA, but is on track to return for Argentina's final match in the 10-team South American qualifying group, hosting Ecuador on Oct. 10.
"We have to appeal this decision, we'll see how it goes," said Jorge Miadosqui, Argentina's national teams director. "But we're left angry and sad because (Messi) will not be with the team."
Argentina has relied on its captain Messi to move up to third place in a group where the top four qualify for the tournament in Russia. The fifth-place team will enters a playoff in November, likely against New Zealand.
Messi has scored in four qualifiers so far, with Argentina going on to win every game. Without him, though, Argentina has earned only seven points out of a possible 24.
The 1978 and 1986 world champion is now only two points ahead of sixth place, currently held by Chile, which was playing Venezuela later on Tuesday.
Argentina's next match is away to Uruguay on Aug. 31. Then it has two home games against struggling sides: Venezuela on Sept. 5 and Peru on Oct. 5.
It was close to a must-win match last Thursday when Argentina hosted Chile, the team it lost to in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016
Argentina won 1-0 after Messi scored with a first-half penalty at the vibrant Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires, but he lost his cool in the closing minutes.
Messi reacted angrily when a decision went against him and aimed a volley of profane abuse at the assistant. He refused to shake hands with the official after the match.
FIFA could intervene as the incident was not initially reported by the Brazilian referee. It was judged a red-card offence for Messi.
"This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee's previous rulings in similar cases," said the world soccer body, which also fined Messi 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,160).
Messi and the Argentine soccer federation can challenge the ban at FIFA's appeals committee. It rarely overturns disciplinary rulings, though it could reduce the number of games he must miss.
A subsequent appeal does not currently seem possible to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. FIFA's legal statutes do not grant jurisdiction to the Swiss-based CAS in "appeals arising from ... suspensions of up to four matches."
The Messi ban adds further turmoil to the embattled Argentina soccer federation, which is currently being run by an emergency committee appointed by FIFA last June.
A previous generation of Argentine soccer leaders were implicated in corruption and indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015, and subsequent federation elections were disputed. New elections are scheduled this week.
The interim federation leader questioned FIFA's judgment Tuesday.
"I think it's unusual because it will set a precedent that will decide the future of many things," Armando Perez told Argentina's TyC Sports channel. "I think it's too sensitive for something like this. They should have reasoned or contemplated this is in another way.
"Four games is too much."
Messi's behaviour and ban could affect his chances of winning FIFA's best player award for 2017, even if his club Barcelona wins the Champions League.
FIFA guidance to voters is that on- and off-field conduct should be taken into account.
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in a career-long duel for the game's most prestigious prize, and the Portugal and Real Madrid forward won his fourth FIFA award in January to draw within one of his great rival.
In a stark contrast for soccer's global stars, Messi has been shamed this week while Ronaldo was rewarded with the airport in his home island of Madeira being named in his honour .
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press