UEFA create slot for France in Euro 2016 qualifiers

UEFA on Friday announced that Euro 2016 hosts France will play a string of friendlies against pre-set rivals ahead of the tournament, while fellow teams lock horns in the qualifying race.

With a guaranteed berth at tournaments, host nations regularly struggle to programme friendly matches with sides more focussed on their qualification campaigns.

UEFA's unusual move overcomes that, and means Les Bleus will take an indirect part in the campaign, as well as evening out the number of teams involved.

The decision came at a meeting of UEFA's executive board, which also gave a green light for the Euro 2016 qualifying format, ahead of the February 23 draw in the southern French city of Nice.

The teams will be split into nine qualifying groups.

Eight of them will feature six nations, with the remaining one made up of five teams, against whom France will play their friendlies.

"France will play in the group of five. That way they'll have dates and opponents for their friendly matches, but the matches won't count towards qualification, whatever the result," UEFA chief Michel Platini told reporters.

The former France captain noted that the French Football Federation was pleased with the idea, and that it was a way of dealing with a dearth of friendly opponents.

In addition, it evens out the potential pros and cons -- for example, qualifying experience versus fatigue -- for teams that find themselves drawn in the group of five.

UEFA also named the nine top seeds for the qualifying campaign, in the shape of Bosnia, England, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Russia.

The qualifying competition will involve 53 UEFA members, including Gibraltar, the tiny territory at the foot of the Iberian peninsula, whose control by Britain is contested by Spain.

Given the political sensitivities, UEFA ruled that Gibraltar and reigning European and world champions Spain cannot end up in the same Euro 2016 qualifying group.

The same goes for bitter rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia, who have been at loggerheads since fighting a territorial conflict as the Soviet Union crumbled two decades ago.

But Russia and Georgia, who likewise went to war in 2008, have told UEFA they would be "very happy" to be pitted against each other in their Euro 2016 group, Platini said.

The top two reams in each of the nine groups will qualify automatically for the finals, along with France.

They will be joined by the best third-placed team, while the eight remaining third-placed teams will contest play-offs to determine the last four qualifiers.

The 2016 finals will see the number of competing teams increase from 16 to 24.

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