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Lionel Messi free kick leads Argentina to victory over Ecuador in opening World Cup qualifier

Argentina got its 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a winning start thanks to yet another sublime Lionel Messi free kick.

With the score still goalless after 78 minutes, Messi stepped up and curled a pinpoint effort over the defenders’ wall, rooting Ecuador goalkeeper Hernán Galíndez to the spot and making him just another spectator.

It proved to be the winner in Argentina’s 1-0 victory and the Inter Miami forward then received a huge standing ovation when he was substituted in the 89th minute.

“We know that they are difficult matches in the qualifiers,” Messi told reporters after the match. “Ecuador has very good players, they know what they are doing and they are very good physically. It was a very tough match, very physical. I was a little tired – that’s why I was subbed – but I felt good.

“Not long ago, we were world champions, but it seems like a lot happened since then. We have to keep going, competing and qualifying for the next World Cup, take it game after game.

“We showed in the friendlies we played and today in today’s match for points that this group is not going to relax. Everyone wants to beat Argentina and now that we are champions, even more so.”

Messi’s goal was his 29th in World Cup qualifying campaigns, equaling his old Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez’s record. In total, Messi now has 104 goals in 176 games for the national team.

While the Albiceleste dominated possession, an organized Ecuador team – which will be expecting to qualify for the 2026 World Cup – stifled the home team’s attack for much of the match.

However, there was no stopping Messi’s moment of magic late in the second half.

The newly-expanded World Cup means the top six of the 10 South American teams are now guaranteed a place for the 2026 edition, with the country finishing in seventh entering a mini intercontinental playoff tournament to try and earn a spot.

Elsewhere on Thursday, Colombia also got its campaign off to a winning start with a 1-0 win at home to Venezuela, while Paraguay was held to a goalless draw at home to 10-man Peru.

The first round of fixtures continues on Friday, with Brazil hosting Bolivia and Uruguay welcoming Chile.

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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