GENEVA (AP) — Spain returns to national-team soccer this week amid turmoil since the men’s and women’s teams won international titles in the last games they played.
The first two days of Spanish men’s preparation for a European Championship qualifying game Friday in Georgia started with captain Álvaro Morata reading a statement of support to the Women’s World Cup-winning players and denouncing “unacceptable behavior” by now-suspended federation boss Luis Rubiales.
Off-field distractions continued Tuesday: an apology to world soccer for Rubiales’ conduct at and since the women’s final in Australia by his interim replacement Pedro Rocha, and firing beleaguered women’s team coach Jorge Vilda.
Men’s team coach Luis de la Fuente — who won a UEFA Nations League title in June just months into the job — has kept that job despite also being a longtime federation ally of Rubiales.
Unlike Vilda, De la Fuente did not face a walkout by his entire coaching staff and a player mutiny. Only Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias has said he won’t play for Spain until “things change.”
Still, those Nations League victories over Italy then Croatia in the final, in a penalty shootout, seem a long time ago and the Group A table in Euro 2024 qualifying leaves fourth-place Spain lots to do.
Group leader Scotland won two more games in June, after stunning Spain 2-0 in March, and is eight points clear ahead of playing last-place Cyprus on Friday. The Scots could qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany as soon as next Tuesday.
Spain is still heavily favored to qualify with a top-two finish and also hosts Cyprus next Tuesday. Back-to-back wins for the Euro 2008 and 2012 champion can at least distract from the Rubiales saga.
European champion Italy also took an unexpected turn since beating Nations League host the Netherlands in the third-place game in June.
Coach Roberto Mancini last month abandoned his defense of the Azzurri’s title won in 2021, and two weeks later was confirmed as Saudi Arabia’s coach on a four-year contract worth a reported $100 million.
New coach Luciano Spalletti cut short his sabbatical taken after leading Napoli to a runaway Serie A title and now starts against a Mancini nemesis.
Italy plays on Saturday at North Macedonia, which shockingly ended Mancini’s path to the 2022 World Cup in the European qualifying playoffs.
Italy then hosts Ukraine at San Siro in Milan next Tuesday, seeking to close on group leader England which has just one qualifying game in this international break.
Scotland and England are joined by France and Euro 2016 champion Portugal as leaders with four straight wins in the 10 groups. France and Portugal have yet to concede a goal.
France hosts Ireland on Thursday at Parc des Princes and could field a stellar trio of Paris Saint-Germain forwards — Kylian Mbappé, Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembélé — on their home field.
Portugal brought Cristiano Ronaldo home from Saudi Arabia for games at second-place Slovakia on Friday and home to Luxembourg.
Serbia will host Hungary in Group G with the top spot on the line.
With 53 European nations in qualifying action — all bar Euro 2024 host Germany and suspended Russia — some politics usually can be found.
Turkey hosts Armenia on Friday for the first time since their World Cup qualifier in 2009 that both state presidents attended. It signaled an easing of diplomatic tension between the neighbors since World War I.
Kosovo hosts Switzerland on Saturday with strong ties between the squads stemming from immigration to the Alpine nation since war in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Kosovo can call on Ismajl Beka and Kreshnik Hajrizi who were born in Switzerland and play for clubs there. Switzerland’s Uran Bislimi played two international friendlies for Kosovo last year before settling on his national-team eligibility. The ethnic Albanian roots of Swiss veterans Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are well established from wins against Serbia at the past two World Cups.
Ukraine will host England in Wroclaw, Poland, on Saturday as its national and club teams continue to play international games abroad during the Russian war on their country.
The first recognized international soccer game was Scotland playing England to a 0-0 draw in Glasgow on Nov. 30, 1872.
The actual 150th anniversary passed while England was in Qatar for the World Cup, so the game honoring the historical mark was delayed to next Tuesday at Hampden Park, Glasgow.
Russia was removed by FIFA from qualifying playoffs for that World Cup but finally gets to Doha next Tuesday to play Qatar. Russia has been a pariah in European soccer during the war and this will be its sixth game against an Asian national team in the past 18 months.
Germany fills its schedule hosting friendlies against Japan on Saturday and France next Tuesday in Dortmund.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press