GENEVA (AP) — The first soccer team from Kosovo to qualify for the group stage of a European competition found out its opponents Friday -- after being diverted away from the only Serbian side in the draw.
Kosovo champion Ballkani was one of the last teams picked from the pot of lowest-ranked teams in the Europa Conference League when the next vacant space was in Group D that included Partizan of Belgrade.
Teams from Kosovo and Serbia — which does not recognize the independence since 2008 of its neighbor and former province — have been separated by UEFA in competition draws since European soccer’s newest member federation joined six years ago.
Ballkani was instead moved across to Group G where it will play Slavia Prague, Cluj and Sivasspor in round-robin games from Sept. 8 to Nov. 3.
Ballkani will play home games at the national stadium in Pristina because its own ground in Suva Reka does not meet UEFA standards.
The group-stage debut is a reward for Ballkani advancing through three qualifying rounds of the third-tier competition after losing in the opening round of Champions League qualifying.
It will earn Ballkani at least 3 million euros ($3 million) in UEFA prize money given to each of the 32 group-stage teams from a competition prize fund of 235 million euros. Ballkani can also earn 500,000 euros for each game won and 166,000 euros per draw. UEFA pays more bonuses for advancing to the knockout rounds.
The tiny principality of Liechtenstein, with a population about 38,000, also has its first team into a group stage, though Vaduz plays in the second-tier division of neighboring Switzerland’s league.
Vaduz has advanced unbeaten through three qualifying rounds — eliminating Rapid Vienna, a two-time beaten finalist in the old European Cup Winners' Cup — despite going winless in five Swiss league games this season.
Its reward is landing in a group with AZ Alkmaar, Apollon Limassol and Dnipro-1 of Ukraine, which has been playing its “home” games in neighboring Slovakia because of the Russian military invasion.
The Europa Conference League was launched last season after a 2018 decision by UEFA to give a competitive stage for teams from lower-ranked countries that are typically overmatched in the Champions League and Europa League qualifying rounds.
In other groups drawn Friday in Istanbul, West Ham and Anderlecht will meet in rematches of their 1976 Cup-Winners’ Cup final, won by the Belgian side.
Their group also has Silkeborg and FCSB, the former Steaua Bucharest club which won the European Cup in 1986.
Villarreal, a Champions League semifinalist last season under coach Unai Emery, was grouped with Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Austria Vienna and Lech Poznań.
The eight group winners advance to the round of 16 played in March. Runners-up go to a knockout playoffs round in February with eight teams switching across from the second-tier Europa League which was also drawn Friday.
The final is on June 7 at Slavia Prague’s stadium.
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Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press