Lionel Messi scored the winner for Argentina in their opening match of the South American 2026 World Cup qualifiers on Friday night.
Just 265 days after Messi concluded one of the greatest stories in sports history by finally lifting the World Cup for his country, he got the wheels in motion for their title defence with a stunning free kick in a 1-0 victory over Ecuador.
The goal means that the 36-year-old has now scored in six separate World Cup campaigns, a run that dates back to his goal against Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 tournament in Germany.
While Messi hasn't confirmed whether the intends to play in a record-breaking sixth World Cup in 2026, he's wasted no time in helping Argentina to get there, by scoring the winner on the opening night of the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
Lionel Messi helps Argentina kick off 2026 World Cup campaign
La Albiceleste were held by Ecuador for the first 77 minutes of the Buenos Aires meeting, before Messi stepped up to bend a left-footed free kick around the wall and into the net.
The moment carried on the sensational form Messi has been in since joining up with Inter Miami in the States, as well as his inspirational performances at the Qatar World Cup last year, and Argentina's Copa America success in 2021.
The result means that Argentina join Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia on three points after the first round of South American World Cup qualifying, which gets underway long before any other continent on the globe.
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) September 8, 2023
2026 World Cup qualifying
The straight 10-team league format used by the confederation has always provided some of the most entertaining qualifying moments, although with up to seven of those countries set to qualify for the expanded 48-team format in 2026, some of the jeopardy has been taken out of proceedings.
The top six finishers will automatically take their place at the tournament in the United States, Mexico and Canada, with the seventh-best South American side left to compete in the inter-confederation play-offs, along with one team from each other continent except Uefa.