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 Moiss Caicedo's Ecuador on Thursday at the Monumental de Nuez Stadium in their 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 their 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 Martinez, defender Nicolas Otamendi, midfielder Enzo Fernandez and striker Julian Alvarez.
Since moving to the US 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.
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 Pez. Their head coach, Flix Sanchez 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 on Thursday, Colombia will play Venezuela and Paraguay take on Peru. On Friday, Brazil open against Bolivia and Uruguay host 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 are 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 Paqueta 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.
Bolivia are one of the six teams in the competition who 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 Suarez 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 Sanchez.
Nestor Lorenzo, a longtime assistant to Jose Pekerman, will be Colombia's head coach this time. The Argentinian will count on striker Luis Daz as his main player, but is also leaving the door open for veterans like James Rodriguez.
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.
The FIFA intercontinental play-off tournament, which will take place at a centralised venue in March 2026, will determine the last two teams to secure a berth for the FIFA World Cup 2026.
As confirmed by the FIFA Council in 2017, the slot allocation per confederation is as follows:
AFC: 8.5 slots (one team advancing to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs)
CAF: 9.5 slots (one team advancing to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs)
Concacaf: 6.5 slots (two teams advancing to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs)
CONMEBOL: 6.5 slots (one team advancing to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs)
OFC: 1.5 slots (one team advancing to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs)
UEFA: 16 slots
FIFA World Cup 2026 preliminary competition format by confederation
Joint qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup 2027. The first round, to be played in October 2023, will consist of a home-and-away play-off series between 20 AFC teams, with 10 home-and-away ties and 10 teams advancing to the second round.
The second round will be played between November 2023 and June 2024 and feature nine groups of four teams, with the first- and second-placed teams in each group reaching the final round of qualifying.
The initial pathway has already been revealed for 46 AFC nations, after the draw for the first and second qualifying rounds was conducted in Kuala Lumpur.
The final round, to be staged between September 2024 and June 2025, will consist of three groups of six teams, with the first- and second-placed teams in each group qualifying directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the third- and fourth-placed teams contesting the AFC play-off matches.
The group stage of the play-offs will be played in October and November 2025 at a centralised venue, with the six teams divided into two groups of three. The two group winners will qualify directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026, while the second-placed teams from each group will progress to the single-match play-off knockout stage, the winner of which will qualify for the FIFA intercontinental play-offs.
Following the draw that took place on 13 July 2023 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, one round of matches will be played between November 2023 and October 2025, with the teams divided into nine groups of six and the winners qualifying directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026, while the four best second-placed teams will progress to a play-off round to be played in November 2025. The play-offs will consist of a single-leg semi-final played at a centralised venue and a one-leg final, the winner of which will progress to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs.
The FIFA World Cup 2026 hosts, Canada, Mexico and the USA, automatically qualify for the final competition.
Additionally, the four lowest-ranked Concacaf teams in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking will play two home-and-away series in March 2024, with the winner of each series advancing to the second round, to be played in June 2024 and June 2025.
The second round will comprise six groups of five teams, with the first- and second-placed teams in each group advancing to the final round, to be played in September, October and November 2025. The final round will consist of three groups of four teams, with the respective winners qualifying directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the two best second-placed finishers making it to the FIFA intercontinental play-offs.
The top six teams in CONMEBOL’s home-and-away round-robin league-format qualifiers, which are due to conclude in September 2025, will qualify directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026, while the seventh-placed team will secure a berth in the FIFA intercontinental play-offs.
CONMEBOL has had a round-robin league qualifying format in place since the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
The preliminary competition will be played in three stages. Stage one will take place at a centralised venue in September 2024 and will comprise a one-leg play-off series among the four lowest-ranked OFC teams in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The winner of each series will advance to a final match, the winner of which will progress to stage two.
Stage two, which will see eight teams divided into two groups of four, will be played in a league format in October and November 2024, with the first- and second-placed teams in each group advancing to stage three.
Stage three will take place in the March 2025 International Match Calendar window at a centralised venue, with four teams contesting two single-match semi-finals. The two winners will meet in one single-match final to determine the team that qualifies directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026, whereas the runners-up will play in the FIFA intercontinental play-offs.
The group stage will comprise 12 groups of four or five teams to play home-and-away round-robin matches between March and November 2025, with the 12 group winners qualifying directly for the FIFA World Cup 2026. The 12 group runners-up, as well as the four best-ranked group winners from the 2024/25 UEFA Nations League that finish outside the top two in their qualifying group will enter a confederation-level play-off stage to be held in March 2026.
The 16 teams that enter the play-offs will be drawn into four play-off paths of four teams. Each team will play in a single-leg semi-final, with the winners progressing to a single-leg final within the same International Match Calendar window. The four path winners will qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2026.