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North Macedonia make history as Hungary secure Euro 2020 berth

Paris (AFP) – Hungary came from behind to stun Iceland and secure a place at Euro 2020 on Thursday after North Macedonia qualified for a major tournament for the first time by beating Georgia 1-0 away in their play-off final.

Hungary and Iceland met in the group stage of Euro 2016 in France, drawing 1-1, and were each hoping to qualify for a second consecutive European Championship finals after both won play-off semi-finals last month.

Iceland led for most of the game in Budapest and looked set to make it to a third major tournament in a row after Gylfi Sigurdsson’s early free-kick slipped through the grasp of home goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi in the 11th minute.

However, Hungary equalised in the 88th minute when Loic Nego, a naturalised Hungarian born in France, pounced to score after Kari Arnason diverted the ball into his path in the box.

And the home side did not need to wait for extra time to grab the winner as Dominik Szoboszlai’s fine low strike into the corner sealed a 2-1 victory in the second minute of injury time.

Twice World Cup runners-up, Hungary ended a 30-year major tournament absence when they went to Euro 2016 and reached the last 16.

They will go into Group F at the delayed Euro, which was postponed for a year to June and July 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and will come up against World Cup holders France, Germany and reigning European champions Portugal. They will play two group games at home in Budapest.

– Pandev strike sinks Georgia –

Meanwhile, North Macedonia will make their tournament debut after veteran striker Goran Pandev scored the only goal of their game with Georgia in the 56th minute in Tbilisi.

The Balkan nation, who sit 65th in FIFA’s world rankings, will go into Group C at the finals alongside former winners the Netherlands, Austria and Ukraine. They are scheduled to make their debut against Austria in Bucharest on June 13.

North Macedonia, who played their first official game in 1993 following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, had never come close to reaching a major tournament before but were given a chance after the new UEFA Nations League offered a route to Europe’s traditional minnows.

One qualifying place was set aside to a team from the bottom League D of that competition, and North Macedonia topped a group with Armenia, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein before beating neighbours Kosovo 2-1 in Skopje in the play-off semi-finals last month.

Georgia, ranked 86th, were also aiming to reach their first major tournament after winning 1-0 in their semi-final against Belarus.

The sides had met twice in Nations League fixtures in the past two months, with North Macedonia coming from behind to draw 1-1 each time.

This time, though, they shaded the victory thanks to Pandev, the 37-year-old Serie A veteran who is a legend in his home country.

The goal was the result of some lovely play between three Italy-based players, with Napoli’s Eljif Elmas and Udinese’s Ilija Nestorovski combining on the edge of the area to set up Pandev, and he took a touch before scoring with a dinked finish.

A member of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side that won the Champions League in 2010, Pandev is now with Genoa and is his country’s all-time top goal-scorer.

The remaining two play-off finals — Northern Ireland against Slovakia and Serbia against Scotland — went to extra time.

The European Championship was due to take place in June and July of this year before being postponed because of the pandemic.

It is set to be played in 12 cities across the continent, with the semi-finals and final at Wembley in London.

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