Argentina captain Lionel Messi has lashed out at what he sees as referee bias that stopped his team from winning the Copa America, the biggest tournament in South American football.
“I did not want to be part of this corruption, we shouldn't have to be part of this disrespect we suffered during the Copa America,” he said.
"We could have gone further but we weren't allowed into the final. Corruption, referees and all the rest stopped people from enjoying the football.”
Messi, 32, boycotted Argentina's medal ceremony following a victory over Chile in the third-place play-off, which was marred by a first-time altercation with Chilean midfielder Gary Medel. Minutes before half-time, Messi nudged Medel as he chased the ball into the box, and the latter reacted by chest-bumping the Argentinian twice.
Although Medel appeared to be the one to lose his temper, the referee decided to wave a straight red card to both players.
The Barcelona icon also criticised the refereeing after a 2-0 defeat by bitter rivals Brazil in the semi-final, in particular the decision not to award his team a penalty before Brazil’s second goal.
“He [the referee] was on their side. In every divided ball or dispute, he inclined the pitch their way. It’s not an excuse, but the truth is that, in this Copa, they kept on blowing for stupid things, for handballs, penalties. But today, they didn’t even go to VAR when there were clear plays that should have been looked at,” he said.
CONMEBOL, South America’s football governing body, in response accused Messi of showing a lack of respect.
“In football, sometimes you lose and sometimes you win,” the statement said. “One of the fundamental pillars of fair play is to accept the results and the refereeing decisions with respect,” it said.
"These accusations represent a lack of respect to the competition, to all the participating players and to the hundreds of professionals of CONMEBOL, an institution that since 2016 has been working tirelessly to make South American football more transparent, professional and well-developed."
Widely regarded as one of the greatest football players to ever grace the game, Lionel Messi is Argentina’s all-time top-scorer with 68 goals in 136 caps.
With the national team, the No.10 picked up a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and a silver medal at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
This year’s third place at Copa America became a fifth for Argentina; the team last won this tournament in 1993.