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Soccer-Greece's 2004 heroics unlikely in expanded Euros

Reuters

By Mike Collett

NICE, France, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers takes place on Sunday in Nice, at a venue whose name evokes memories of the greatest upset in the championship's 54-year history, and one that is unlikely to be repeated because of changes to its format.

Delegates from UEFA's 54 member nations will gather at the Acropolis Convention centre, reminding them that Greece, who started Euro 2004 as 250-1 outsiders, finished champions of Europe after beating hosts Portugal in the final.

Greece's shock triumph came after traditional powerhouses Italy, Spain and Germany failed to make it through the 16-team group phase leaving the quarter-finals wide open for an upset.

UEFA, to the dismay of many observers, have decided to expand what was widely regarded as a perfectly-sized 16-team tournament to 24 teams when it is staged in France in 2016.

That means that nearly half of the 53 teams taking part in the 13-month long qualifying competition will reach the tournament in France.

Once the finals start, another 36 matches will have to be played in the opening group phase reducing the 24 finalists to 16 for the first knockout round.

UEFA president Michel Platini, hero of the France team that won the 1984 championship staged at home with just eight teams, has been widely criticised for the tournament's expansion.

Not only will the finals be bigger, the qualifying competition will have a different look too.

Matches will no longer be played just on Fridays and Tuesdays but on any day during a six-day "Week of Football" window.

When the idea was announced in 2011 Platini explained: "Fans around the world will love it. They will be able to watch more action than ever before...It will be a huge boost for international football."

ODD MOVE

Somewhat oddly, France, already qualified as hosts, will take part in this bloated football fiesta as a member of one of the qualifying round groups.

There will be nine groups, eight of six teams and one of five teams.

After Sunday's draw, France will be allocated to the five-team group (already designated as Group I) and it will play a series of 10 friendlies against the five teams in that group.

Platini told reporters after last month's UEFA executive committee meeting: "France will play in the group of five and that way they have guaranteed dates and opponents for their friendlies but the matches will not count towards qualification, no matter the result.

"The French FA are happy. They will not have to scramble around for friendlies when the other teams are playing."

UEFA also announced the top seeds last month which are European and world champions Spain, seeking a third successive European crown, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia and Bosnia.

The nine group winners and runners-up along with the third-placed team with the best record plus France will go directly into the finals. The remaining eight runners-up will play off to determine which four qualify.

UEFA's newest member Gibraltar are taking part for the first time, but will be kept apart from Spain in the draw for political reasons as will bitter political enemies Azerbaijan and Armenia.

However Russia and Georgia, who fought a war six years ago, have said they have no problems in being paired.

UEFA has allocated the 53 teams to the following six ranking pots which will be drawn into the nine qualifying round groups:

Pot One: Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Bosnia

Pot Two: Ukraine, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland

Pot Three: Serbia, Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Norway, Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Poland

Pot Four: Montenegro, Armenia, Scotland, Finland, Latvia, Wales, Bulgaria, Estonia, Belarus

Pot Five: Iceland, Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania, Moldova, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus

Pot Six: Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar.

The qualifying competition starts in September this year and ends in October 2015. The finals are being staged from June 10 to July 10, 2016.

(Reporting by Mike Collett; editing by Clare Lovell)

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