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Messi back as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off

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After a dazzling start to his career in Major League Soccer, Lionel Messi returns to international duty with Argentina this week as South America’s long qualifying road to the 2026 World Cup kicks off on Thursday.

Nine months ago, Messi crowned his glittering career by leading Argentina to a World Cup crown in Qatar cementing his status as the greatest player of his generation.

Since that magical night in Doha, the diminutive 36-year-old superstar’s life has gone through a period of upheaval.

After an acrimonious end to his career with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi was courted by Saudi Arabia before ultimately deciding to forge a new chapter of his career with Inter Miami.

That move has proven to be an inspired decision, with Messi and his family settling in Florida seamlessly while enjoying success on the field, leading Inter to their first silverware and into the US Open Cup final.

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Inter coach Gerard “Tata” Martino, the former Argentina and Barcelona player, says Messi has been “liberated” by finally leading Argentina to the World Cup last year after several agonising major championship near-misses.

But the question hanging in the air as South America’s qualifying campaign gets under way this week, is whether Messi will be around when Argentina aim to defend their title in 2026, when the tournament is co-hosted in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Messi appeared to pour cold water on that prospect in comments made in June, saying he did not expect to play in the 2026 finals.

However he later admitted in an interview in July he had no clear idea of when he plans to call time on his international career.

“Even I don’t know when. It’ll happen when it happens,” Messi told Argentine media.

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“After winning everything I want to enjoy the moment and wait for time to tell me when it’s the moment.

“Logically, given my age, one would expect it to be soon, but I don’t know for sure.”

‘Door always open’

Argentina’s World Cup-winning manager Lionel Scaloni is certainly in no mood to force the issue.

Scaloni is on record as saying that a place in the 2026 squad will be Messi’s for the asking if he chooses.

“I think Messi can get to the next World Cup,” Scaloni said in January.

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“It will depend a lot on what he wants, on whether he feels good.

“The door will always be open. He is happy on the pitch and it would be very nice for us.”

While the questions may continue to swirl around Messi’s future in future, there is less uncertainty about Argentina’s prospects for qualification for the World Cup.

The expanded 48-team finals in 2026 mean that six of the 10 teams competing in South American qualifying, which will be completed in September 2025, will qualify automatically for the finals. The seventh place team will advance to a playoff.

Given Argentina’s strength, it would take an upset of mammoth proportions for them to fail to qualify automatically for 2026.

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Messi and Argentina’s qualifying journey gets under way with a home fixture against Ecuador at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires on Thursday, before the team face Bolivia in La Paz next Tuesday.

Other games on Thursday see Paraguay take on Peru, while Colombia host Venezuela.

Friday sees two more fixtures, with Uruguay playing Chile in Montevideo while five-time World Cup winners Brazil make their entrance against Bolivia in Belem.

Brazil enter qualifying in a state of flux, with a new manager in Fernando Diniz, who took over from predecessor Tite in the wake of the Selecao’s World Cup quarter-final exit to Croatia last year.

Whether Diniz will be in charge when Brazil arrive at the finals though is anyone’s guess, with the South Americans long believed to be targeting Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti to lead the team to the finals.

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Brazil’s preparations for qualifying have also been disrupted by controversy around Manchester United winger Antony, who was dropped from the squad this week after revelations of assault made by an ex-girlfriend.

Antony, who denies the claims, has been replaced by Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus.

-AFP

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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World Cup

It’s 28 years since Super Eagles’ worst competitive defeat

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Denmark unexpectedly beat Nigeria 4-1

BY KUNLE SOLAJA

Denmark face Germany on Saturday hoping to recreate their famous victory at the Euro 92 when they secured their first title, although they were the underdogs.

 This day 28 June, a day before their Round of 16 Euro 2024 clash with Germany also brings the memory of their famous Round of 16 win over Nigeria at the France ‘98 World Cup.

Their 4-1 defeat of the Super Eagles remains the biggest defeat that the Nigerians have gotten in a competitive duel in nearly 30 years.

 It was an unexpected result considering that the Super Eagles contributed to the elimination of one of the tournaments favourites, Spain.

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A goal down under two minutes and two down under 12 minutes presented a huge mountain for the Super Eagles to climb.

 What a twist of an event most had thought the Nigerian team would be the dominant side.

The world was awaiting a match-up of Nigeria and Brazil in the quarter-finals.

It was to rekindle the memorable encounter of both countries’ Olympic teams two years earlier when Nigeria famously defeated Brazil 4-3 in a golden goal decider at the semi-finals.

     A rematch at the quarter finals of France ’98 would have brought up a novel match-up of reigning Olympic gold medallists and reigning World Cup holders. It turned out a mere dream.

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 Nigeria’s manager, Bora Milutinović fielded a starting line-up with seven midfielders and no attacker.

Could that had been a new tactical formation in football in a knockout game Nigeria had to score and win? Call it the 3-7-0. Call it overconfidence.

      Even Nigeria’s manager was reportedly half-kiddingly remarked before the match: “We’ve got a very important match coming up in Nantes” – a reference to a possible quarter-final meeting  with Brazil.

  Member of the team, Mutiu Adepoju told Sports Village Square that poor tactical approach cost Nigeria the match.     “The game was taken as a routine one and hence, no special preparation for it.

  “The coaches did not even border to get insight into the Denmark team”, said Adepoju who was called ‘Headmaster’  for his heading skill. It was with an header that he scored Nigeria’s first goal that put scores at 1-1 in a 3-2 defeat of Spain in the opening match.

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  He dismissed a well publicised claim by teammate, Taribo West that the players had busy nights with women prior to the match.

  He however admitted that there was discontentment in camp and that the coaching crew lost control of the team.

  It came light that the players did not sleep all night as the now very familiar agitations for enhanced match bonuses came up.

As published in the on-line version of Al-Jazeera in 2014, Sunday Oliseh was quoted as saying: “We wasted too much energy on the eve of our game haggling over bonus, something like that should not be the focus at a big tournament like the World Cup. “We lost that game off the pitch and not on the pitch.”           

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World Cup

FIFA awards win to Niger after Congo no-show in World Cup qualifier

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FIFA has awarded Niger a win and the full three points in a 2026 World Cup soccer qualifier with Congo that was postponed this month, the world governing body said on Wednesday.

Congo had refused to travel to Kinshasa, capital of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, for their home game after their stadium in Brazzaville was deemed not to have met hosting requirements.

Niger did travel, and were awarded the game 3-0, which leaves them second in Group E on six points, three behind leaders Morocco. Congo are stuck on zero points from their three matches.

Only the top team in each of the nine pools is guaranteed a place at the expanded World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

“The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has decided to declare the match lost by forfeit 3-0 by the representative team of Congo,” FIFA said in a statement.

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It said the Alphonse Massemba-Debat Stadium in Brazzaville could not have been used until renovations, including the laying of a new pitch, were completed

Congolese Sports Minister Hughes Nguilondile declared the stadium ready in late May, but it was deemed too late to move the fixture. FIFA ordered it to go ahead in Kinshasa as originally planned, leading to Congo’s withdrawal in protest.

-Reuters

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World Cup

Can of worms discovered in Super Eagles camp

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BY KUNLE SOLAJA

All is not well at the moment with the Nigeria’s Super Eagles who have gone seven World Cup qualifying matches since November 2021 without a win.

The dwindled fortunes contrast sharply for a team noted before now as the African sides with the longest unbeaten streak in the World Cup qualifiers. At time, they were unbeaten since losing through a late goal to Angola in Luanda on 20 June 2004 till 10 November 2017 when their 1-1 draw with Algeria was converted to a 3-0 forfeiture owing to NFF featuring an unqualified player. At  the time, Super Eagles had raked 35 unbeaten run. At another time from 2012 to 2013, the team had an unbeaten run of 18 matches from 3 June 2012  when they beat Namibia 1-0 in Calabar to 21 June 2013 when they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay in a FIFA Confederations match in Brazil.

 Yet the same outfit has turned laborious after losing its flairs. A source close to Finidi George told Sports Village Square that the coach complained that the NFF just heaped all the blames of the team’s current precarious situation on him while exonerating the players.  

  He also reportedly remarked that the NFF did nothing to mobilise crowd support for the Super Eagles in the back-breaking encounter with Benin Republic in Abidjan despite the presence of large Nigerian community in the Ivorian commercial capital city.

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 A Benin Republic sports journalist confirmed this to Sports Village Square. The journalist remarked that it was true that there “were not many Nigerians at the Félix Houphouet Boigny stadium even though Nigeria has a strong community in the Ivory Coast.  I see that the defeat against the Republic of Benin really hurts.”

  Dr. Rafiu Ladipo, the President General of the Nigeria Football and other Sports Supporters’ Club (NFSP) had earlier made the same assertion on the neglect of crowd mobilisation for the Super Eagles and that those who made it to Uyo and had auto accident on their way back were not even given a mention by the NFF.

 He had since 1991 established the first of the international cells of the supporters club. They were not mobilised for the game against Benin Republic.

 On players attitude, a member of the NFF confirmed that the Super Eagles camp in Uyo was loose as players went to camp with their girl friends.

 That could also explain their dismal forms in the back-to-back destiny shaping encounters with South Africa and Benin Republic.

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