UEFA says Russia, Georgia end soccer standoff

GRAHAM DUNBAR (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

NYON, Switzerland (AP) -- Russia and Georgia have agreed to play each other in soccer, ending a standoff dating to their brief war in 2008.

European soccer's governing body said Friday the two national soccer associations stated their willingness to play in 2016 European Championship qualifying matches.

''I'm very pleased to say that the Russians and Georgians can play together if they are in the same group,'' UEFA President Michel Platini said at a news conference.

The agreement comes before next month's qualifying draw and Russia hosting the Sochi Olympics near its Georgian border.

''I'm not sure what political discussions took place between their governments,'' Platini said. ''We're only in touch with the football associations.''

UEFA has kept apart Russia and Georgia in all national team competitions since the August 2008 conflict on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

The Euro 2016 qualifying draw in Nice, France, is Feb. 23, the final day of the Winter Olympics.

The breakthrough leaves two unresolved political issues in the draw.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have a territorial dispute, have been kept apart since their scheduled Euro 2008 qualifiers were canceled, and defending champion Spain refuses to play new UEFA member Gibraltar because of a sovereignty dispute with the British territory.

UEFA confirmed nine top seeds in the draw of mainly six-team groups: Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The top two teams in each group qualify directly for the 24-nation tournament. The best third-place team also advances, and the remaining third-place teams enter a playoff round to decide the final four entries.

Host nation France is exempt from qualifying but will play exhibitions during the qualifying program against teams drawn in the only five-nation group.

Tournament director Jacques Lambert said a detailed match schedule for the tournament scheduled for June 10-July 10 in 10 host cities could be published within weeks.

UEFA will follow a model used at the 1998 World Cup in France - also organized by Platini and Lambert - and ask teams and fans to travel around the country rather than base groups in regional clusters.

''It was very much appreciated by all because it allowed all the spectators and the people of France a varied spectacle, and allowed foreign fans to live this event in a sporting but also a tourist aspect,'' Lambert said.

Platini quipped that French trains and airplanes were fast, and his country could be crossed in three hours.

In Brazil, FIFA originally intended to base the 32 teams in regional zones but was overruled by government and tourism officials there.

While Brazil has missed stadium construction deadlines, Lambert said France was ahead of schedule, helped by mild winter weather.

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