Tirana to host 1st Europa Conference League final in 2022

GENEVA (AP) — The national soccer stadium in Albania was chosen Thursday to host the first final of a new European club competition.

UEFA said the 22,500-seat Arena Kombëtare in Tirana will stage the inaugural Europa Conference League final in May 2022.

The competition launches next season as the third tier in the pyramid of European competitions, below the Champions League and Europa League. It was created to help countries whose teams cannot realistically compete for the two existing titles.

UEFA on Thursday also made the draw for next year’s Nations League Final Four tournament, pairing host Italy with Spain. Top-ranked Belgium will face World Cup champion France.

The men’s Under-21 European Championship in 2023 was awarded to co-hosts Georgia and Romania.

The Europa Conference League Teams will have teams from all 55 UEFA member countries enter the qualifying rounds, before a 32-team group stage and knockout rounds.

The entry list foresees the sixth-place team at the end of this season in Europe’s four highest-ranked leagues — Spain, England, Germany and Italy — entering at the qualifying playoff stage.

The format means a team could play in all three club competitions in the same season.

Teams eliminated in Champions League qualifying rounds transfer into the Europa League. Third-place teams in Europa League groups then move into a playoff round in the Europa Conference League with a place in its last-16 at stake.

The Europa Conference League champion in Tirana will earn a place in the next season’s Europa League, which will cut its group stage from 48 teams to 32 from 2021.

The final tournament of UEFA’s newest national team competition, the Nations League, will be played at San Siro in Milan and Juventus Stadium in Turin next October.

The standout lineup — world No. 1 Belgium and three recent World Cup champions — qualified for the five-day tournament by winning groups in the Nations League that ended last month.

The Italy-Spain game is in Milan on Oct. 6, and Belgium-France is in Turin the next day. The final and third-place games are both played on Oct. 10.

Their Nations League commitments, when the rest of Europe will be playing in 2022 World Cup qualifying groups, will affect that draw which FIFA makes on Monday.

Belgium, France, Italy and Spain must each be drawn in a qualifying group of five teams instead of six to clear space in their schedules next year.

As in all UEFA draws, teams from Azerbaijan and Armenia have to be kept apart for security reasons because of their dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

UEFA’s executive committee decided Thursday to lift an additional ban on both countries hosting international games, which was imposed in October when the military conflict flared again. A ceasefire was agreed four weeks ago.

The decision came too late to change plans for Azerbaijan’s Qarabag hosting a Europa League game on Thursday in neutral Turkey against Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

In a sign that UEFA hopes to resume in-person meetings if the coronavirus pandemic can be controlled, the European soccer body changed plans for its annual meeting next year. It now plans to hold an April 20 event in Montreux in UEFA’s home country of Switzerland, instead of a virtual meeting on March 2.

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