GENEVA (AP) — Soccer's game of catch-up on matches missed during the coronavirus pandemic sees European Championship qualifying playoffs headline an expanded stretch of national-team action starting Wednesday, and fans can attend in some countries.
The Euro 2020 playoffs begin Thursday, more than six months later than scheduled, with 16 teams competing for the last four places in a 24-nation lineup. The finals tournament is now scheduled to begin in June 2021, delayed a year due to the pandemic.
Even if all the playoff teams — who also need to play two Nations League games beginning this weekend — are below the top level, the potential stories are striking.
Kosovo, the newest addition to world soccer in 2016, aims for its first appearance at a major tournament.
So does Erling Haaland, Norway’s 20-year-old star forward who was not born when his nation last appeared on the international stage at Euro 2000.
The prize for four playoff teams — Hungary, Ireland, Romania and Scotland — is to have home games at Euro 2020 next June. They're among the 12 host nations. That will also require the pandemic to be under enough control that UEFA sticks to its plan for host nations across the continent.
The playoff picture will be completed next month. The winners of eight playoff semifinals in four separate brackets Thursday advance to finals games on Nov. 12.
The best pairing looks be in the third tier, Norway vs. Serbia, with a slew of playmakers from Champions League teams. Borussia Dortmund’s Haaland and Real Madrid’s Martin Ødegaard for Norway face Serbia’s Dusan Tadic of Ajax and Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić.
Just 200 tickets are being distributed by Norway’s soccer federation for the game at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo, with the winner getting a home game against Scotland or Israel on Nov. 12.
UEFA has allowed up to 30% capacity in stadiums for its games, though only within limits approved by local health and public authorities.
No fans will attend Kosovo’s playoff away to North Macedonia in the fourth-tier bracket. The winner Thursday travels to face Georgia or Belarus next month.
The top-tier bracket includes only one team, Iceland, that actually played at the highest level of the inaugural Nations League two years ago. Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were moved up in a complex process for teams that did not qualify direct for Euro 2020 to fill the playoffs brackets.
The winner of Bulgaria vs. Hungary, which has a 4,000-spectator limit in Sofia, will next month host the winner of Iceland vs. Romania.
In the second-tier bracket, Bosnia-Herzegovina hosts Northern Ireland for the right to host Slovakia or Ireland next month.
Several teams have seen at least one squad member drop out after testing positive for COVID-19. UEFA requires further mandatory tests before games.
If a playoff game in October or November cannot go ahead, UEFA’s emergency competition rules allow for it to be rescheduled until June, just days before the finals tournament kicks off in Rome on June 11.
Playoff teams still have two Nations League games to play by next Wednesday in UEFA’s new triple-header schedule. The new program has no games on Friday as teams play on Saturday-Tuesday or Sunday-Wednesday cycles.
Standout Nations League games include France vs. Portugal — a rematch of the Euro 2016 final at Stade de France — and England vs. Belgium on Sunday. Then, on Tuesday, France travels to Croatia in a reunion of the 2018 World Cup final, and Italy hosts the Netherlands.
The program starts Wednesday with friendlies for some teams which already qualified for Euro 2020. European champion Portugal hosts Spain, Germany is home to Turkey, and France hosts a Ukraine team hit by virus cases.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports