Lionel Messi’s second-half goal gave Argentina a 1-0 home win over Ecuador on Thursday to get their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign off on the right foot. The world champions were dominant in possession but frustrated in attack as they struggled to make the breakthrough until captain Messi stepped up to shine as only he could. Messi, who has now scored in each of his last eight appearances for the Albiceleste, stepped up to curl a free kick over the wall and into the bottom corner after 77 minutes.
It was a perfect strike and goal, adding to Messi’s remarkable run of form as he bids to surpass Diego Maradona as the greatest player ever. It also tied him with close friend Luis Suarez as the joint all-time top scorer in World Cup qualifying with 29 goals.
Messi was all smiles as he watched the ball sail into the net, something he’s done about 800 times before for club and country. He was on the edge of his seat as he waited to hear the roar from the crowd before celebrating with teammates and family in the center circle.
Few players on Earth can pull off what Messi does, and it’s even more impressive, considering he’s not in his prime. Even though the 34-year-old is not yet at the peak of his powers, he’s making a compelling case to become the first player since Maradona to win three straight World Cup titles.
Messi was in fine form during his first game back for Argentina in a long while, creating chances and scoring with his trademark flair. He was even the subject of a tweet from the NBA’s biggest star, LeBron James, who called him “INCREDIBLE,” complete with the requisite goat emoji.
As a result of the victory, Argentina went into the top spot in their group with six points and an early advantage over Uruguay, who were held to a goalless draw by Chile on Tuesday. The two sides meet in November to decide who will finish top of the group and secure an automatic qualification spot.
For the rest of the teams in the group, it will come down to how they fare against one another. It is not a particularly strong pool, and there are no easy matches. Spain and Japan are in contention for the final spot with four points each, but they must defeat their opponents and hope that Germany or Colombia lose or tie against Finland and South Korea. The remaining five teams will play each other in late October and November to determine their standing. The winner of the group will earn the final automatic qualification spot from CONMEBOL. The results of a playoff will decide the other two spots. The playoff winner will qualify for the intercontinental playoffs, contested in February and March 2021. The winner of the intercontinental playoffs will qualify for the World Cup in 2026.