Lionel Messi’s three goals lifted Argentina into the World Cup on the last day of South American qualifying, keeping the Albiceleste from missing out for the first time since 1970.
The two-time champions — and losing finalists three years ago in Brazil — rode Messi’s hat trick in the thin air of the Andes to defeat Ecuador 3-1, after the home side took a 1-0 lead in the first minute.
The top four teams in South America get automatic berths to Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” said Messi, adding that the team “will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this.”
Uruguay defeated Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
Six teams — separated by only four points over 17 matches — had shots at the World Cup entering play Tuesday.
Chile and Paraguay missed out. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
Chile lost 3-0 to Brazil, the 12th straight unbeaten qualifying game for Brazil coach Tite.