How long can Argentina continue to rely on Lionel Messi?

Hernán Galíndez, Ecuador‘s goalkeeper, was born in the Argentine city of Rosario in 1987 and likes to tell the story of the first goal he ever conceded in youth football after he switched from being a striker. It was scored by a local contemporary of his by the name of Lionel Messi.

Messi may have helped himself to the first goal past Galindez, but the 36-year-old now has the last — an exquisite 77th-minute free kick which gave Argentina a 1-0 win at home to Ecuador in the first round of 2026 World Cup qualifiers.

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Up until that point, Galindez and Ecuador could feel happy about their evening’s work. Galindez had just dived left to block a Messi shot, the product of a typically elusive dribble after an exchange with Rodrigo De Paul. Otherwise, though, the goalkeeper had been seldom troubled as Ecuador stuck to their gameplan on a cold night in Buenos Aires.

Ecuador coach Felix Sanchez set up his team with a back three and packed the midfield. Against physically imposing opponents it was hard for Argentina to work their way through and, with pace and talent on the break, Ecuador would provide occasional reminders that they had an attacking threat of their own.

There were times when Argentina made the ball fizz and De Paul enjoyed the space he found with Ecuador pre-occupied by Messi. A glorious four-man move brought memories of the successful 2022 World Cup campaign when Alexis Mac Allister pulled the ball back for Messi to shoot just wide from the edge of the area. De Paul then crossed for Lautaro Martínez to stretch out a boot and turn the ball onto the far post.

Martinez had been surprisingly preferred to Julian Avarez up front, presumably to do battle with the Ecuador’s tall centre-backs. And with the aim of stretching out the pitch, Nico Gonzalez started on the left wing ahead of Ángel Di María. But hard as they tried, Argentina could not force their way through.

Defender Cristian Romero came up from the back to make an auxiliary striker, reaching the right byline and pulling a ball across for Nico Tagliafico’s shot to clip the bar on its way over. It is an indication of the perils of overcommitting players forward that Romero’s next vital action was inside his own penalty area, as he was forced to make a saving tackle when Enner Valencia was bearing down on goal.

Di Maria came on, Alvarez was introduced, but in the end it was all about Messi. An attacking melee — in which Romero was once more involved — brought a free kick on the edge of the area. Messi dinked it over the wall as easily as if he had picked the ball up with his hands and placed it in the far corner. Galindez had no chance.

So the story goes on, which leads to the question: how long can Messi go on? How long does he want to go on? The No. 10 had seemed to dismiss talk of still being around for the 2026 World Cup, when he will be approaching 40, but the nearer the competition comes the greater the pressure to give it a try.

The Argentina team built by Lionel Scaloni in these extraordinary five years has very much been Messi surrounded by his fan club. If 2026 really is a bridge too far for Argentina’s captain, then Scaloni may have got himself in a position where his side can no longer play with Messi but cannot play without him either.

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