Messi back as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off
September 6, 2023 10:02 AM
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 on Thursday.
Nine months ago, Messi crowned his glittering career by leading Argentina to a World Cup crown in Qatar cementing his status as the greatest player of his generation.
Since that magical night in Doha, the diminutive 36-year-old superstar's life has gone through a period of upheaval.
After an acrimonious end to his career with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi was courted by Saudi Arabia before ultimately deciding to forge a new chapter of his career with Inter Miami.
That move has proven to be an inspired decision, with Messi and his family settling in Florida seamlessly while enjoying success on the field, leading Inter to their first silverware and into the US Open Cup final.
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.
However he later admitted in an interview in July he had no clear idea of when he plans to call time on his international career.
"Even I don't know when. It'll happen when it happens," Messi told Argentine media.
"After winning everything I want to enjoy the moment and wait for time to tell me when it's the moment.
"Logically, given my age, one would expect it to be soon, but I don't know for sure."
- 'Door always open' -
Argentina's World Cup-winning manager Lionel Scaloni is certainly in no mood to force the issue.
Scaloni is on record as saying that a place in the 2026 squad will be Messi's for the asking if he chooses.
"I think Messi can get to the next World Cup," Scaloni said in January.
"It will depend a lot on what he wants, on whether he feels good.
"The door will always be open. He is happy on the pitch and it would be very nice for us."
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.
Messi and Argentina's qualifying journey gets under way with a home fixture against Ecuador at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires on Thursday, before the team face Bolivia in La Paz next Tuesday.
Other games on Thursday see Paraguay take on Peru, while Colombia host Venezuela.
Friday sees two more fixtures, with Uruguay playing Chile in Montevideo while five-time World Cup winners Brazil make their entrance against Bolivia in Belem.
Brazil enter qualifying in a state of flux, with a new manager in Fernando Diniz, who took over from predecessor Tite in the wake of the Selecao's World Cup quarter-final exit to Croatia last year.
Whether Diniz will be in charge when Brazil arrive at the finals though is anyone's guess, with the South Americans long believed to be targeting Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti to lead the team to the finals.
Brazil's preparations for qualifying have also been disrupted by controversy around Manchester United winger Antony, who was dropped from the squad this week after revelations of assault made by an ex-girlfriend.
Antony, who denies the claims, has been replaced by Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus.