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Messi protests ban as he claims insults were 'to the air'

Argentina captain Lionel Messi has protested his innocence after being handed a four-match ban for abusing an official, insisting his insults were aimed "to the air".

The Barcelona star scored the only goal of the game in a World Cup qualifying win against Chile, but his second-half clash with an assistant led to a ban in the hours before a second crucial clash with Bolivia.

Argentina lost 2-0 in La Paz without their star player and Messi is adamant that the ban is unfair as he did not direct his frustrations towards the officials.

"My sayings were never addressed to the assistant, but they were said to the air," he said in a statement reported by La Nacion.

Argentina have already announced an intention to appeal the ban, which would see Messi also absent for qualifying matches against Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru.

"We are surprised by the decision that has been taken," national team secretary Jorge Miadosqui said on Tuesday. "We are very angry because of the way it was handled hours before playing.

"We are going to appeal the FIFA sanction. There are previous [examples] to believe the punishment can be decreased. Messi is sad, as we all are. We do not agree with the way in which this was handled."

Argentina are in fifth place in the CONMEBOL section with six games of the campaign remaining. The top four teams progress automatically to Russia, while the side in fifth will enter the play-offs.