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.

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.

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 means 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. –su­