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Argentina used two matches in March to host a party. Panama and Curacao came down to help the newly crowned World Cup champions celebrate December’s triumph in Qatar. But time moves ever onwards and this month’s FIFA dates — the last before World Cup qualification kicks off — see Argentina take the first, tentative steps towards 2026.

The challenge ahead is immense. Only two countries have ever successfully defended the world title — Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 — and both won the second title on their home continent. Three years from now, then, Argentina will be attempting to make history. And on previous evidence, defending the title is hard on the Argentine psyche.

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The risk of losing status, of having a much cherished trophy taken away from them, has meant that Argentina’s campaigns of 1982 and 1990 were both marked by an impending sense of tragedy. That second time, 33 years ago in Italy, it almost felt as if the team were fuelled all the way to the final (where they lost to West Germany) by a sentiment of “everyone’s against us” bitterness, at the centre of which were the efforts of superstar Diego Maradona to overcome the physical limitations of a damaged ankle.

This time, for the moment at least, it all revolves around Lionel Messi. Will he, won’t he? He will play against Australia in China on Thursday. But then he goes off on holiday and will not feature next Tuesday against Indonesia. The real question, of course, is whether he will be in action in the next World Cup, during the course of which he will turn 39.

Speaking to Chinese outlet Titan Sports on Tuesday when asked about playing at the 2026 World Cup, Messi said: “I think not. [Qatar] was my last World Cup. I’ll see how things go, but as it is right now, no, I won’t go to the next World Cup.”

But this is not a normal player, and the normal rules do not apply. Messi’s skillset is so vast that even with the inevitable physical decline he can still find a way to be useful. This issue is not going to go away. It will be alive right up to the moment when coach Lionel Scaloni — or whoever is in charge of the national team at the time — names his squad in May of 2026.

Scaloni has said that there is a place in the squad for Messi if he wants it, and he has offered the same guarantee to Angel Di Maria. A genuine superstar without the ego to match, Di Maria has come up big for Argentina when it matters time and time again — perhaps more than ever in the World Cup final, when he ran the French defenders ragged. Six months younger than Messi, Di Maria will be 38 at the time of the next World Cup. But it is probably harder to imagine him still on international duty in 2026. The loss of acceleration speed will surely remove much of his potency.

And if Messi, anyway, is irreplaceable, Scaloni can at least look around and see wingers with the potential to tip the balance in three years time. One of them is Alejandro Garnacho. Scaloni has said that he is looking forward to seeing the Manchester United wide man in action over the next few days. Putting down a marker for the future, Scaloni has included Garnacho in previous squads. But now the serious business of the World Cup — and its celebrations in March — is in the past, this will be his first opportunity to show what he can do.

Part of the haste to include him comes from the fact that Garnacho can also represent Spain, as he did at youth level. But his mother is from Argentina, and Garnacho says that he has always felt an affinity with the country of her birth. Now that he has shown signs of immense promise with United, his change of footballing nationalities is a touchy subject with the Spanish press, who have mocked the player’s somewhat forced attempts this week to switch his Madrid accent for a more operatic, Italianate version of the language as spoken in Argentina. There will be more like Garnacho. After the country’s economic crash of 2001 many left in search of a better life elsewhere, and the sons of this generation of the diaspora are on the radar of the Argentina side.

Meanwhile, Brighton winger Facundo Buonanotte also waits for his international debut. But for the moment, at least, he would seem to be behind Garnacho in the pecking order. There are also call-ups for a couple of France-based centre backs — Lucas Balerdi of Marseille, who played a couple of games in the early days of the Scaloni regime, while Facundo Medina of Lens has been promoted from the 2021 Olympic team. Medina’s ability to play on the left side of the defence makes him a candidate to replace the veteran Nico Otamendi, still named in the squad but surely with little chance of making it all the way to 2026.

Essentially, then, Argentina face Australia — just over six months after what turned into a dramatic round-of-16 thriller in Qatar — with their World Cup stars, plus a couple of interesting additions. Scaloni is presumably looking for a gentle transition on the way to building a side for 2026 — so suave that he can perhaps persuade Messi to come along for the ride.

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If Messi’s World Cup days are over, Argentina must rebuild