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Update Messi, Neymar aim for World Cup qualifying amid COVID-19 pandemic
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[Image: pjimage-2020-05-25t153156-1590400927.jpg]

Lionel Messi and Neymar return to national team duty this week to launch World Cup qualifying campaigns that the South American superstars hope will lead to glory in Qatar in 2022.

If Messi leads Argentina to its third world title and first since 1986, it would finally win him a place in the hearts of Diego Maradona’s faithful. At odds with Barcelona, the 33-year-old Messi will be the key for his team, beginning when they host Ecuador on Thursday.

Though younger than Messi, Neymar could also be approaching his final opportunities to lead Brazil to a sixth World Cup. Neymar will be 30 when Qatar hosts the tournament in November and December of 2022.

Neymar, celebrated at Paris Saint-Germain after a Champions League runner-up campaign but still criticized by local fans, has a chance to start regaining their love when they host Bolivia on Friday. Brazil last won a World Cup in 2002.

“We need to play every match as if this was already the World Cup,” Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimarães said.

Games will be played between Thursday and Tuesday in empty stadia due to coronavirus restrictions. The South American soccer confederation convinced most local authorities to lift quarantine measures for incoming players.

Ten teams are battling for four direct berths. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, in that order, start as favorites for those spots. The fifth-best team can earn qualification through an intercontinental playoff, with Peru and Chile as strong contenders. The qualifying phase ends in March 2022.

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