Messi gets Argentina over the hump against Ecuador in South American Qualifier debut

The Argentine captain scored on a free kick but left the game early with some discomfort

Lionel Messi often makes football look easier than it is, as Argentina’s 1-0 win against Ecuador in its 2026 World Cup Qualifiers debut shows. Despite having a lackluster game, the defending World Cup champions managed to unlock their opponent’s scheme thanks to another sprinkle of Messi magic — a pitch perfect free-kick to get the win on a night that set off alarms as the Albiceleste captain asked to be subbed off.

Argentina started the game dead set on being the protagonist, as head coach Lionel Scaloni had said before the game. The game plan, however, ran into two obstacles: Ecuador and the team itself.

Despite having most of the ball for long stretches of the match, the Albiceleste failed to make a dent in the Ecuadorian defense. Misplaced passes, a lack of creativity, and an opponent that left few open spaces had Argentina sluggish and a bit out-of-sorts.

The visiting team understood the importance of the game and looked to minimize its losses. Playing a wide five-man defense and showing no intention of going on the attack, Ecuador was happy to let Argentina have the ball and run down the clock whenever it had the chance.

One key change regarding the World Cup lineup was the substitution of Ángel Di María, who announced he’ll be retiring from the national team after the 2024 Copa América, for Nicolás González: Argentina gained dynamism and had the best opportunities to score in the second half.

However, things remained stagnant until the 78th minute, when a free kick near the edge of the box gave Lionel Messi a golden opportunity. The Argentine captain took it and scored an impressive goal to get his team over the hump. 

The goal meant more than a win for Argentina, as it allowed Messi to tie the all-time goal-scoring record in the South American Qualifiers. The Inter Miami star now sits at 29 goals, tied with his friend and former teammate Luis Suárez from Uruguay.

Despite all the smiles, the night ended with a bit of worry.  With two minutes to go La Pulga asked to be subbed off, something that hadn’t happened since Argentina played Nigeria on June 25, 2014, during that year’s World Cup in Brazil.

“I don’t know what the issue with Lionel is,” Scaloni said after the game. “He asked to be subbed off; it wasn’t my call. We’ll do a check-up and see on Friday if he’s ready to play in Bolivia.”

Messi, 36, was playing his 22nd game in 48 days. His schedule for the second half of the year has been brutal, as he jumped into the MLS shortly after leaving Paris Saint Germain and has played virtually non-stop since July 21.

The Argentine captain, however, didn’t seem too concerned about his health. “I was tired at the end but felt very good,” said Messi. “It probably won’t be the last time I come out before the final whistle.”

When asked about the South American Qualifiers, Messi was cautious and echoed the words of Scaloni. “This team doesn’t relax. Winning the World Cup was something beautiful, but a new cycle starts now,” he said.

“Everyone wants to beat Argentina, even more so now that we’re world champions. That’s why we can’t let up. We have to improve because games will demand our best effort.”


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