Defending champion Argentina starts as favorite when South American World Cup qualifying kicks off

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi gestures during the second half of a Major League Soccer match against Los Angeles FC Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Lionel Messi and his Argentina lineup will be back on World Cup duty this week, when their bid to defend the title starts in South American qualifying.

Argentina will face Moisés Caicedo’s Ecuador on Thursday at the Monumental de Nuñez Stadium in its first official match since winning the World cup in December.

The last time a World Cup winner played in South American qualifying was in 2003, when Brazil had to secure its spot in a tournament with 32 teams.

The 2026 edition in the United States, Mexico and Canada is expanding to a 48-team format, which means the number of direct spots from South America increases from four to six and the seventh-place team goes into an intercontinental playoff for another place.

So teams like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are almost sure to advance from the round-robin qualification tournament that runs until September 2025. The new format has led many top coaches and players to see the tournament as preparation and an opportunity for renovation rather than a make-or-break competition.

The Argentina squad will be laden with World Cup winners, with the 36-year-old Messi joined by the likes of goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, defender Nicolás Otamendi, midfielder Enzo Fernández and striker Julián Álvarez.

Since moving to the U.S. from Europe to join Inter Miami, Messi has scored 11 goals in MLS and is in good form.

Coach Lionel Scaloni is yet to lose a South American World Cup qualifying match, with Argentina's last defeat in the tournament — in 2017 — coming before his tenure started.

“The start is always complicated,” Scaloni told Argentina's soccer association website. “The first round always has its shades. I hope our players get there in shape and are able to enjoy the match with our people. And we have to compete, that's what we like to do.”

Ecuador's lineup will feature Caicedo, who was recently signed by Chelsea for $146 million, and also include veteran striker Enner Valencia and 16-year-old sensation Kendry Páez. Its head coach, Félix Sánchez Bas of Spain, will debut in South American qualifying.

The Ecuador lineup will have the double disadvantage of playing away, and starting the competition three points behind the other nine teams.

FIFA punished Ecuador with the deduction of three points in South American qualifying for the falsification of birth information of defender Byron Castillo, who is of Colombian origin. So even a shocking upset win in Argentina would only get Bas and his team back to zero.

In other games Thursday, Colombia will play Venezuela and Paraguay takes on Peru. On Friday, Brazil opens against Bolivia and Uruguay hosts Chile.

The home game against Bolivia will be the first in charge for coach Fernando Diniz, who has a one-year contract while the five-time World Cup champions wait for Carlo Ancelotti to leave Real Madrid at the end of the season.

The Selecao is far from settled.

Vinicius Junior has been ruled out because of a hamstring injury; Neymar is returning after some time on the sidelines and a divisive transfer to Saudi Arabia; Lucas Paquetá is absent because of a Premier League investigation that linked the midfielder to gambling; and Antony was dropped after an ex-girlfriend made allegations of assault.

“The first thing to do is to create connections with the players as quickly as possible, establish good relationships and implement the tactical element day by day,” Diniz told media upon arrival in the Amazon city of Belem, where Brazil will take on Bolivia. “It is just a little time, but it is time. We need to know how to seize it.”

Bolivia is one of the six teams in the competition that will have an Argentinian coach on the bench. Gustavo Costas has been tasked with returning Bolivia to the World Cup for the first time since 1994.

Veteran Marcelo Bielsa will be in charge of Uruguay after a long spell in European clubs. He started his job by leaving strikers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani out of the squad that will take on Chile at home. Bielsa is using members of Uruguay's Under-20 World Cup winning team to rejuvenate the squad.

That was not the case for Chile's Argentinian coach Eduardo Berizzo, who is bringing back Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Alexis Sánchez.

Néstor Lorenzo, a longtime assistant to José Pekerman, will be Colombia's head coach this time. The Argentinian will count on striker Luis Díaz as his main player, but is also leaving the door open for veterans like James Rodríguez.

Venezuela, the only team of the region that is yet to qualify for a World Cup, also picked an Argentinian as head coach when it hired Fernando Batista.


AP sports writer Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.


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