Lionel Messi scored a superb free-kick to inspire Argentina to a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Ecuador during Thursday night’s 2026 World Cup qualifier. The South American nations went head-to-head in Buenos Aires, and it was Messi - yet again - who proved to be the difference.
In scintillating form for Inter Miami in recent weeks, Messi had the opportunity to secure all three points for his country with a 78th-minute free-kick. Ecuador set up a five-man wall and made sure that a sixth man was laying down behind the wall to prevent a low strike from arguably the greatest footballer of all time.
But Messi still managed to find the back of the net, curling the ball to absolute perfection past opposition goalkeeper Hernan Galindez, who stood absolutely no chance. It was another moment of pure magic from the 2023 Ballon d’Or favourite who’s rediscovered his joy for football since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.
Why did Messi come off early vs Ecuador?
The 36-year-old played on until the 89th minute before being subbed off for Exequiel Palacios. Alleviating concerns that he was substituted because of injury, Messi told reporters, per @AlbicelesteTalk: “I came out because I was a bit tired. It's probably not the last time that will happen [come out during the last minutes of the game]. It’s all good, I’m fine.”
Indeed, given the incredible amount of football that Messi has played recently, it’s impressive that the veteran forward lasted almost the full 90 minutes. Since joining Inter Miami in July, the Barcelona legend has played 11 games for his new employers in America.
Three of those games have gone to penalties, too - and Messi has prevailed in all of them. Inter Miami were struggling badly before his arrival; now they’re unbeaten in 11 matches. During that time, Messi has scored 11 goals, provided five assists for his teammates, won one trophy and dragged the team to another cup final.
However, it was Messi’s decision to come off slightly earlier against Ecuador, according to Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni, who said in his post-match press conference: “Messi asked for a substitution, otherwise I wouldn’t take him off. Later we will evaluate what he has.”
Will Messi be at the 2026 World Cup?
This was the first batch of 2026 World Cup qualifiers and Argentina now sit joint-top of the CONMEBOL section, alongside Colombia, after winning their opener. Whether Messi will be at the tournament in three years’ time is unclear at this stage. It would be a huge ask considering 2022 was expected to be his final World Cup.
But all the time that Messi is enjoying playing for his country - and he’s enjoyed it more than ever over the past three years - then there’s a strong chance that he will help to defend Argentina’s World Cup crown, even at the age of 39. There’s little doubt that he’ll still be good enough, even then, to perform at the highest level.
Video: Lionel Messi's stunning free-kick vs Ecuador
His latest free-kick is proof that his once-in-a-lifetime class is permanent. You can watch the legendary forward’s latest stunning effort below. Be sure to check out both angles, too: