The Summer of Stars is about to get even more celestial.

With the European Championship in Germany already in full swing, the expanded 16-team Copa América 2024 kicks off Thursday when Lionel Messi and defending champion Argentina face Concacaf foe Canada in Atlanta (Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET, kickoff at 8 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app).

Messi won his first title with the Albiceleste’s senior team at the 2021 Copa América. He cememted his legacy as the GOAT the following year, when he led Argentina to its first World Cup since Diego Maradona did it four decades earlier.

USA 2024 presents Messi with a golden opportunity to further burnish his resume. Another Copa crown would give Messi his third triumph at a major tournament, equaling Brazilian great Pelé. Winning three in a row would put Argentina in rare company as one of the few nations — and first since the great Spanish team from 2008-12 — ever to accomplish the feat.

Coach Lionel Scaloni’s personnel hasn’t changed much since they hoisted the most coveted piece of hardware in sports in Qatar in late December 2022. In addition to Messi, fellow veterans Ángel Di María, Emiliano Martínez and Nicolás Otamendi are still there. The most notable addition is 19-year-old Manchester United forward Alejandro Garnacho, who debuted for his country last year.

Argentina hasn’t rested on it laurels over the last 18 months.

The Albiceleste has posted a gaudy record of 13W-1L-0T since the World Cup. And they are the prohibitive favorites to repeat as champs, with Brazil a relatively distant second pick.

Doing it is another thing entirely.

[Related: Copa America 2024 Odds, Favorites to Win]

Messi will turn 37 the day before Argentina’s second game, against Chile in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

He’s been slowed by injuries since his dream start with MLS club Inter Miami last summer. Messi has appeared in just 12 of the Herons first 18 league games this season. But he’s still lethal when healthy, though, which Messi demonstrated by scoring twice in a 4-1 win over Guatemala last weekend in Argentina’s final preparation match.

Canada, a 2022 World Cup participant, will be a step-up in competition. Les Rouges finished first in Concacaf qualifying for Qatar and have a legit all-world talent in Bayern Munich fullback/winger Alphonso Davies who, at 23, was just named Canada’s captain. They also have a younger team now led by a new coach, American Jesse Marsch. Marsch, who was passed over for the U.S. job last year, is desperate to make a good first impression at the world’s longest-running international tournament. Stopping Messi will be the top priority. But not the only one.

“As he’s gotten older, his biggest weapon has become his passing,” Reds defender Kamal Miller recently said of Messi, his former Inter Miami teammate. “We’ve got to do a good job of not only focusing on him, but respecting the whole team.”

Alexi Lalas gives his Copa America round by round predictions | SOTU

Meantime, Argentina’s South American rivals Chile and Peru are even more formidable opponents.

Meantime, South American rivals Chile and Peru will be a step up from the Canadians. The Chileans beat Argentina in consecutive Copa América finals in 2015 and ’16, the latter marking the last time the U.S. hosted the event.

But there’s a clear path to the 2024 final if Mess & Co. can handle their business. Brazil and Uruguay — the bookies’ third favorite — are both on the other side of the bracket. Mexico could be their biggest roadblock, but El Tri enters the competition with its weakest squad in recent memory.

Winning the July 14 decider at Hard Rock Stadium in his adopted home city of Miami would provide a storybook ending to Messi’s already unparalleled career should he decide to drop the mic and walk away from international play while the confetti is still falling.

Or, maybe a third consecutive title will inspire him to shoot for an unprecedented fourth, especially with another World Cup here in North America just two summers from now.

“If I feel good,” he has said repeatedly this year, “I will keep playing.”

Either way, all eyes will be on the biggest star of all at this Copa América starting Thursday, if only to see what sort of magic Messi might be able to conjure as an encore.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him at @ByDougMcIntyre.

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