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How many South American teams will play in the 2026 World Cup? How can Lionel Messi’s Argentina qualify?

With the 2026 tournament in the United States, Mexico and Canada expanding to 48 teams, qualification should be straightforward for Argentina and Brazil.

Lionel Messi in Argentina squad for World Cup qualifiers

Will Lionel Messi play for Argentina at the 2026 World Cup? Romantics would suggest the Inter Miami star should have retired from international soccer after La Albiceleste won the tournament for the first time in 36 years in Qatar in 2022. How could he top that, after all? Yet the former Barcelona superstar indicated in the immediate aftermath of the triumph over France that he would carry on leading his country, spreading hope that he could feature in the next tournament in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

When does CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2026 World Cup start and finish?

Nothing has been officially decided. A number of sources “close to” the player have suggested they expect him to be involved, contradicting Messi himself, who has nevertheless stopped short of completely ruling it out. The 36-year-old is, however, involved in Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign, which runs from September 2023 until September 2025.

How does World Cup qualifying work in South America?

South American qualifying, as the dates suggest, is a lengthy process, longer than any other confederation. Yet it is simple to understand, with the 10 members of CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation, playing a total of 18 matches, facing each of the other nine home and away. The 18 fixtures will be played across nine double headers during pre-established FIFA windows. As is the case in most domestic leagues, teams pick up three points for a victory and one for a draw, and are then ranked in a 10-team league.

How many CONMEBOL nations will qualify for the 2026 World Cup?

In 32-team World Cups between 1998 and 2022, the top four South American teams qualified, with the fifth-placed team taking part in an inter-confederation playoff.

However, with the tournament expanding to 48 teams for the first time in 2026, the top six nations will qualify, with the playoff spot moving down to the team that finishes seventh, who will face off against a country from either AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North, Central America and Caribbean) or OFC (Oceania) for a place in the finals.

Qualification made easy for Messi’s Argentina and Brazil

With 60% - possibly 70% - of CONMEBOL members set to appear in the finals, critics of the change have suggested that qualifying for the tournament proper has become far too easy for the bigger nations, who already had little difficult doing so. Argentina have only ever failed to qualify on one occasion, in 1970 (although the did withdraw from the 1938, 1950 and 1954 events), while Brazil are the sole country to have played in every single World Cup.

Argentina’s qualification is surely a formality, but will Messi finish what he started at the 2026 World Cup itself?


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