‘Liberated’ Messi and Co begin 2026 WC qualifying campaign
After a dazzling start to his career in Major League Soccer, Lionel Messi returns to international duty with Argentina this week as South America's long qualifying road to the 2026 World Cup kicks off today.
Messi and Argentina's qualifying journey gets under way with a home fixture against Ecuador at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.
Inter coach Gerard "Tata" Martino, the former Argentina and Barcelona player, says Messi has been "liberated" by finally leading Argentina to the World Cup last year after several agonising major championship near-misses.
But the question hanging in the air as South America's qualifying campaign gets under way this week, is whether Messi will be around when Argentina aim to defend their title in 2026, when the tournament is co-hosted in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Messi appeared to pour cold water on that prospect in comments made in June, saying he did not expect to play in the 2026 finals.
Argentina's World Cup-winning manager Lionel Scaloni, however, is certainly in no mood to force the issue.
"The door will always be open. He is happy on the pitch and it would be very nice for us," Scaloni said in January.
While the questions may continue to swirl around Messi's future in future, there is less uncertainty about Argentina's prospects for qualification for the World Cup.
The expanded 48-team finals in 2026 mean that six of the 10 teams competing in South American qualifying, which will be completed in September 2025, will qualify automatically for the finals. The seventh-place team will advance to a playoff.
Given Argentina's strength, it would take an upset of mammoth proportions for them to fail to qualify automatically for 2026.