After missing out on the 2018 World Cup, Italy has been handed a challenging path to the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
The four-time world champion was drawn in a qualifying group on Monday with Switzerland, which has made it to the last three World Cups and was the highest-ranked team outside of the top seeds. Italy’s failure in the 2018 playoffs cost FIFA around $100 million in lost television revenue.
Only the first-placed teams qualify automatically.
“I think it will be a fight between us and Switzerland,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said.
Italy will contest the Nations League finals next year, meaning it has only four opponents in Group C: Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
World Cup-holder France, Belgium and Spain are also vying for UEFA’s newest title next year.
France is in Group D with Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kazakhstan.
“I’m not going to jump for joy, one always needs to be humble and show respect to all these teams,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “Obviously, as a seeded team France will be favourite, but we still need to make sure we do deliver.”
Germany faces five opponents in Group J, but only North Macedonia qualified for the European Championship next year, unlike Romania, Iceland, Armenia and Liechtenstein.
“We are going into the race as the big favourites,” said Joachim Löw, who is remaining Germany coach despite recent poor results.
The Netherlands, another powerhouse to miss out on the 2018 World Cup, is in Group G with Turkey, Norway, Montenegro, Latvia and Gibraltar.
Group B produced yet more matches between Spain and Sweden, who met in Euro 2020 qualifying and are in the same group at the delayed tournament.
“We are tired of playing against each other,” Spain coach Luis Enrique said. “I don’t think them or us are happy about it.”
It’s also a politically charged group since Kosovo will play Spain, Georgia and Greece, who all don’t recognize the former province which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Spain’s refusal to respect the flag and anthem of Kosovo last year forced UEFA to move qualifying games in soccer’s Under-17 European Championship.
Group I should pit two of Europe’s most prolific strikers against each other: England’s Harry Kane and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski.
“He’s a player that can hurt you and his goal-scoring record for his country is phenomenally good,” England coach Gareth Southgate said of Lewandowski. “So that’s a challenge we’ll face.”
Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino are also in Group I.
Top-ranked Belgium, which finished third at the 2018 World Cup, is in Group E with Wales, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia. European champion Portugal is in Group A with Serbia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
Rather than the usual glitzy event in the host nation with all the coaches, the draw was conducted in a studio in Zurich without any audience due the pandemic.
The 10 group runners-up will enter the playoffs, joined by two teams from the Nations League groups. Those two will be the two highest-ranked Nations League group winners who did finish in the top two of their World Cup qualifying group.
Playoffs will be three brackets of four teams in March 2022, each playing single-game semifinals and finals to fill the last three places in Europe’s 13-nation quota.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Rob Harris, The Associated Press