Lionel Messi, following his impressive stint in Major League Soccer, is returning to international duty with the Argentine national team as the South American qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup commence this Thursday.
Nine months ago, Messi achieved the pinnacle of his career by leading Argentina to victory in the World Cup in Qatar, solidifying his status as the greatest player of his generation. Since then, the 36-year-old superstar has experienced significant changes in his life.
After a contentious departure from Paris Saint-Germain, Messi was pursued by Saudi Arabia but ultimately chose to embark on a new chapter of his career with Inter Miami. This decision has proved to be a wise one, with Messi and his family adapting well to life in Florida and experiencing success on the field, including winning Inter’s first silverware and reaching the US Open Cup final.
Inter Miami’s coach, Gerard “Tata” Martino, a former Argentina and Barcelona player, believes that Messi has been rejuvenated by leading Argentina to World Cup victory last year, following several near-misses in major championships. However, the question now is whether Messi will participate in the 2026 World Cup when the tournament is co-hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In June, Messi appeared to suggest that he didn’t anticipate playing in the 2026 finals. Yet, in a July interview, he admitted that he had no clear plan for when he would retire from international football, stating, “Even I don’t know when. It’ll happen when it happens. Logically, given my age, one would expect it to be soon, but I don’t know for sure.”
Argentina’s World Cup-winning manager, Lionel Scaloni, is open to the idea of Messi participating in the 2026 World Cup if he chooses to do so. Scaloni stated in January, “I think Messi can get to the next World Cup. 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 there may be ongoing uncertainty about Messi’s future, Argentina’s prospects for qualifying for the World Cup appear more certain. The expanded 48-team tournament in 2026 means that six out of the ten teams competing in South American qualifying will automatically qualify for the finals, with the seventh-place team entering a playoff.
Given Argentina’s strength, it would be a significant upset if they failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2026 World Cup. Messi and Argentina’s qualifying campaign begins with a home match against Ecuador at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires this Thursday, followed by a match against Bolivia in La Paz next Tuesday.
Other matches on Thursday include Paraguay facing Peru and Colombia hosting Venezuela. On Friday, Uruguay will play against Chile in Montevideo, while five-time World Cup champions Brazil will make their qualifying debut against Bolivia in Belem.
Brazil enters the qualifiers with a new manager, Fernando Diniz, who took over from Tite following Brazil’s World Cup quarter-final exit to Croatia last year. There is speculation that Brazil may appoint Real Madrid’s manager, Carlo Ancelotti, to lead the team to the finals.
However, Brazil’s preparations for qualifying have been marred by controversy surrounding Manchester United winger Antony, who was dropped from the squad this week due to assault allegations made by an ex-girlfriend. Antony, who denies the accusations, has been replaced by Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus.