Diego Maradona vows to lobby FIFA over 'terrible' Lionel Messi ban

Argentina legend Diego Maradona criticised the four-match ban imposed on Lionel Messi by FIFA and said he will speak to FIFA president Gianni Infantino to try to see it reduced.

FIFA took action after TV cameras showed Messi insulting a linesman during the team's 1-0 victory against Chile on Thursday. The ban was handed down just hours before Argentina were set to play Bolivia, a match Argentina lost, 2-0, to imperil their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

"Messi's ban is excessive and terrible," Maradona told Buenos Aires-based radio station La Oral Deportiva. "Very shortly I will meet with Infantino in Bahrain and as usual, I will tell him what I think."

With only four qualifiers left to play, the stakes are high for the Argentine football federation (AFA), which has announced it will appeal FIFA's verdict in the hope that Messi might make an early return from suspension.

"Four games is a lot and although his words were very strong, I think it [ban] can be changed," said Maradona, who is an ambassador to FIFA.

Messi, in a letter to FIFA that was published by El Mundo Deportivo on Thursday, claimed he did not insult the official but rather yelled "to the air."

Maradona, who coached Messi at the 2010 World Cup, said he didn't fully understand what happened on the pitch, but worried about the repercussions for Argentina.

"NFL players cover their mouths with their hands or a piece of paper when [reacting after] a play is called," he said. "Messi knew that the cameras were on him, so I am surprised by it because he is such a sensational player that he never complains about anything. He just trains. He is a very proper guy.

"He is a teddy bear with his teammates, with everyone. You would have had to be inside the dressing room or at a training to know whether that is something reflexive, I don't know. I would compare it to the head butt that [Zinedine] Zidane gave to [Marco] Materazzi. That left France with 10 men. It ended up being the big moment of the [2006] World Cup and France lost to Italy."

Maradona accused both South America's governing body for football as well as his own federation for elevating the incident to FIFA.

"[Messi] gives everything he has," he said. "And CONMEBOL was behind the sanction. I looked into it and asked around."

Newly elected AFA president Claudio Tapia said Messi was banned from four of Argentina's last five qualifiers because AFA had lost its influence at FIFA.

"[Messi's ban] is not fair and it doesn't abide by the rules,'' Tapia said. "Part of the situation we live in, in Argentine football, is due to the loss of representation at South American and FIFA levels.

"Our task is to rebuild those ties. We have to sit down with the FIFA president, and hire the best professionals to reduce the sanctions [against Messi.]''

Tapia also backed coach Edgardo Bauza, who is under heavy pressure to resign.

"We have to make a profound analysis of all contracts signed by the previous administration," Tapia said, and soon "we will have to meet with him [Bauza]. Then we will see what is best.

"We have to give support to the coach, to give everything so Argentina can qualify.''

Tapia was elected unopposed as the new president, despite coming from third-division club Barracas Central. He drew unconditional support from small clubs like his.

His deputies, though, were presidents of top clubs such as Boca Juniors, Independiente, and Racing Club.

River Plate opposed his election. His election also ended the job of the interim commission assigned by FIFA in mid-2016.

FIFA took over administration of AFA after it fell into crisis following the death of Julio Grondona, who was president for 35 years until his death in mid-2014.

Maradona also blasted Marcelo Tinelli, head of the Argentina national teams committee, for spreading rumours that the former Argentina great had an influence on Messi's ban.

The differences between Tinelli and Maradona are well known in Argentina and the former Napoli star threatened last week to step down as a FIFA ambassador should Tinelli continue in his position.

Maradona said: "Those that said that I've had an influence on Messi's four-game ban must be Tinelli's people. That hurts me. I swear to God that I didn't know."

Argentina sit fifth in South American qualifying, the same position they occupied two matches ago, and Maradona predicted that Argentina will struggle if the ban is upheld.

"Without Messi, our qualifying campaign is in jeopardy. It's one thing with Messi and another without him," he said.

In their qualifying campaign, Argentina have taken 15 points of a possible 18 with Messi and only seven of a possible 24 without him.

"Messi's absence is crucial," Maradona said. "It's like taking Cristiano Ronaldo away from Portugal, they become a team that can be beaten. We didn't play well in Bolivia and [Argentina coach Edgardo] Bauza has a lot of work to do."

Maradona, who carried his country to the 1986 World Cup title, also said he has tried to get in touch with Messi but with no success.

"It's easier to talk to [Argentina President] Mauricio Macri than to Messi," the 56-year-old said. "I've called him many times regarding issues we've had in common but never got a reply."