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UEFA says Russia, Georgia end football standoff ahead of Euro 2016 draw and Sochi Olympics
NYON, Switzerland - Russia and Georgia have ended their football spat dating to a brief war in 2008, by agreeing to play each other.
The two national football associations stated their willingness to play in 2016 European Championship qualifying matches, UEFA President Michel Platini said on Friday.
"I'm very pleased to say that the Russians and Georgians can play together if they are in the same group," Platini said at a news conference after an executive committee meeting.
The agreement comes before the qualifying draw next month, and Russia hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics near its border with Georgia.
"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, will be on Feb. 23 — the final day of the Winter Olympics.
The breakthrough leaves two unresolved political issues in the Euro 2016 draw.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have a territorial dispute, have been kept apart since their scheduled Euro 2008 qualifiers were cancelled, 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: Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The first five teams listed, which have the biggest commercial markets, will be in six-team groups "for TV reasons," said UEFA, which controls rights sales of all qualifying matches.
The top two teams in each group qualify directly for the 24-team 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 France is exempt from qualifying but will play friendlies during the qualifying program against teams drawn in the only five-team 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 that his country could be crossed in three hours.
In Brazil, FIFA originally intended to base the 32 World Cup 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.
Platini, a FIFA vice-president, dismissed concerns about Brazil's readiness for the June 12 kickoff.
"I am really not worried about the World Cup in Brazil," he said, noting that the Stade de France — which hosted the 1998 opening match and final — was not opened until February that year. It will also host the Euro 2016 final.
Platini, who is a potential FIFA presidential candidate next year, declined to discuss a campaign launch this week by his countryman Jerome Champagne, a former FIFA director of international relations.
"I didn't read a great deal about it. I can only say best of luck," Platini said.
In other decisions on Friday, UEFA agreed to increase the Under-21 European Championship in 2017 to 12 teams from eight, and approved trials of referees using vanishing spray at the under-17 tournament in Malta in May to mark where defensive walls should stand.
Successful trials could see UEFA introduce the spray next season in the Champions League and Euro 2016 qualifiers.
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