Habitually one of the most gruelling, even harrowing international competitions on the calendar, it is just possible that this time round the South American race to make the World Cup might lose some of that fearsome lustre.
With the tournament in 2026 ballooning to an unwieldy 48 participants, the continent will send up to seven of its 10 member nations to the United States, Mexico and Canada (in itself enough of a mouthful to repeat), a higher proportion than anywhere else on the planet. In terms of sporting merit, of course, it is difficult to argue that such an increase is unjustified; but the concern is that with so many teams going through to the main event, games that are usually do or die may not be approached with quite the same intensity.
In any case, that was not an issue over the past week for the reigning world champions. Lionel Scaloni's Argentina approach every match as if the fate of the world hung on its outcome, and that furious mentality – and no little class – saw them through a potentially tricky start to their title defence in perfect fashion.
First up, the Albiceleste leaned on a familiar recipe to get past Ecuador, never an easy opponent even when the side is on top of its game. Lionel Messi jetted down from Miami to provide the spark in a hard-fought game, once more proving his team's match-winner with a delightful free-kick at the end to secure victory.
The veteran seems to have lost none of his spark even after adapting to the more sedate pace of MLS and, while the prospect of seeing him in (deep breath) the United States, Mexico and Canada in three years seems remote he will continue to play a big role at the very least in Argentina's quest to reach the finals.
Not an essential one, mind. Scaloni was afforded the luxury of resting Messi for the second match of the round, having taken his captain off in the dying moments of the clash against Ecuador – breaking an astounding run of more than 1,000consecutive minutes he had played for Argentina without ever leaving the action. Ángel Correa was handed the number 10 shirt for the next test, a visit to the altitude of La Paz to take on Bolivia; and even without their lynchpin, the Scaloneta just kept on rolling.
Goals from Enzo Fernández. Nicolás Tagliafico and Nicolás González sealed a 3-0 win for the visitors, a margin almost unheard of in a setting Argentina almost always find most uncomfortable. Nobody was more appreciative than Messi, who looked more than happy for once in the role of cheerleader; but special mention must go to fellow senior figure Ángel Di María, who somehow retains the energy of a fresh-faced teenager and ran the Bolivia defence ragged from start to finish to vindicate the decision to hand him Messi's captain's armband. “We felt the altitude a bit, but every time we had a chance we scored,” the winger beamed after the match. “We deserved a game like this.”
Di María, Messi and grizzled centre-back Nicolás Otamendi are most likely the only members of this current Argentina line-up embarking on the qualifying campaign while in doubt to make the World Cup itself. The rest of the team will be at its peak when USA etc etc. comes around, and with six points out of six to kick off looks a sure bet to be among the 48 present in 2026. Do not rule any of the old guard out just yet, though: three years is a long time in football, but as long as they keep winning one or more of that trio might just stick it out for the entire journey.