RIO DE JANEIRO -- It isn't about the red card. It's about what Lionel Messi said and did after Argentina's win over Chile to secure third place in the Copa America.
"We don't have to be part of this corruption [and] the lack of respect they showed us throughout this tournament," he said, snubbing the postmatch medal ceremony. "Sadly, the corruption, the referees, they don't allow people to enjoy football."
"I think the cup is fixed for Brazil," he added. "I hope VAR and the referees have nothing to do in this final and that Peru can compete because they have the team to do so, although I think it's difficult."
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Those are heavy words raining down like boulders on CONMEBOL, serious accusations that go beyond Messi's frustration about a red card for squaring up to Gary Medel, which, frankly, seemed harsh. This isn't something he yelled after he was sent off. More than an hour-and-a-half had passed when he basically accused organizers of "fixing" the tournament and lashed them with the "c" word: corruption.
Messi will likely get a ban for the red card, which means his next game for Argentina will be at the 2020 Copa America (assuming he feels like coming back), and he could well face further sanction for his postmatch comments. If there is a silver lining to this, it's that Messi's comments might put to rest the idiotic notion that he "doesn't care" as much about Argentina as he does Barcelona.
Of course, he wasn't just referring to events on Saturday in Sao Paulo. Like many, he was incensed at the fact that VAR wasn't used in two potential penalty incidents (Arthur on Nicolas Otamendi and Dani Alves on Sergio Aguero) in the semifinal against Brazil, which Argentina lost 2-0. The Argentine FA wrote two letters of complaint to CONMEBOL, the second of which asked that audio of the conversation between the referee, Ecuador's Roddy Zambrano, and the lead VAR official, Leodan Gonzalez of Uruguay, be shared.
This is where CONMEBOL didn't help themselves, as they didn't immediately release the audio or even brief the media on what happened. There are three possible explanations, and each has fueled all sorts of conspiracy theories. One is that the VAR alerted Zambrano to the incidents and asked him for an on-field review, but he refused and ordered play to continue. Another is that the VAR told him his initial instinct was correct: There was no foul, and play should go on. The third is that VAR communication wasn't working at all.
In the first instance, Zambrano is clearly at fault. In the second, it's the VAR's fault. In the third scenario, well ... either way, CONMEBOL could easily have shed light on this. That they didn't only threw more fuel on the fire, spurring all sorts of conspiracy theories.
What's the upshot here? They have one of the greatest players of all time and unquestionably the greatest player in the Copa America accusing them of corruption. Clever move, eh? On top of that, they now basically have to take action against Messi because if they don't, it sets a dangerous precedent: Anyone can accuse anybody else of being corrupt and get away with it. (And it's not as if they're going to say, "Guess what Leo? You're right. We did fix it for Brazil. Sorry! But the good news is we won't have to ban you ...")
Giving him a further ban means he'll miss a couple of group games at the next Copa America, assuming he has calmed down enough to want to play, which further hurts next year's tournament.
Referees make mistakes. If Zambrano or the VAR made the mistake, let them admit it and move on. Technology fails. If that's what happened or if somebody accidentally pulled a plug or if -- this was the wilder theory -- the security team of Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro accidentally (or on purpose?) interfered with the VAR communications, then say it. Stuff happens.
Instead, CONMEBOL are left with Messi's accusations and a poisonous cloud hanging over their showcase tournament. It didn't need to be this way.