By Rex Gowar
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The Argentine FA, lacking proper leadership since 2015 and fearful its national team might not reach the World Cup finals without banned captain Lionel Messi, elected a third-tier club chairman and former roadsweeper as its president on Wednesday.
Claudio Tapia of Barracas Central, who play in the Primera B Metropolitana division, was the sole candidate in the election but still needed the support of a majority of delegates, which he achieved by scooping 40 of 43 votes cast.
He will serve a four-year term, but some of the power behind the scenes is expected to be wielded by his deputy Daniel Angelici, who is president of top flight Boca Juniors and was a key figure in promoting Tapia’s candidacy.
Tapia, who is also known as “Chiqui” (little one), said one of his first tasks would be to get Messi’s four-match suspension reduced and said it was imperative everyone got behind beleaguered coach Edgardo Bauza.
Messi was suspended on Tuesday after FIFA said he had “directed insulting words at an assistant referee” during their 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Chile on Thursday.
The match officials did not include the incident in their reports but FIFA acted on video evidence and Messi missed Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz.
“(We) will make the necessary efforts before FIFA for the sanction to be … reduced because it is unjust,” Tapia said.
Messi will miss games away to Uruguay and at home to Peru and Venezuela, before returning for their final match in Ecuador in October.
Tapia said it was crucial to give Bauza backing if he was to help Argentina rise from fifth place in the South American qualifying campaign.
Only the top four teams qualify automatically for Russia in 2018 while the fifth-placed team must go into an intercontinental playoff against a side from the Oceania zone.
“We must back him … as well as all the players,” he told a news conference.
“We must meet with him to sit down and see what’s best (for the team). We must find the way to recover our confidence so our beloved Argentine national team represents us in Russia and does its best possible.”
The AFA has been under the administration of a FIFA-appointed Regularising Committee, headed by Argentine Armando Perez, since last June after a presidential election in 2015 ended in a 38-38 tie between two candidates when only 75 delegates had a vote.
Tapia is the first man to win the AFA presidency in an election since Julio Grondona in 1979. Grondona ran the AFA as his personal fiefdom for 35 years until his death in 2014.
The 49-year-old Tapia, who came to Buenos Aires from San Juan province with his family when he was a boy, spent nine years working for the capital’s refuse collection company while playing for Barracas and became a trade union leader and president of his club aged 35.
Tapia has been close to the Argentina team since 2015 and headed the delegation that took them to the Copa America Centenario in the United States last year where they lost the final on penalties to Chile.
The AFA will hope to draw a line under the 35-year reign of Grondona, who died a month after Argentina reached the World Cup final in Brazil. During his tenure the team also won the trophy in 1986 and reached the 1990 final.
(Additional reporting by Luis Ampuero and Miguel Lobianco; Editing by Toby Davis/Peter Rutherford)