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Croatia the goal as EURO qualifying begins

Holders Spain and former champions Italy and Russia are among 24 teams aiming to reach UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 in Croatia when the qualifying round is played out from Thursday.

Spain coach José Venancio López (left) and Italy's Roberto Menichelli both hope to lead their teams to another final tournament
Spain coach José Venancio López (left) and Italy's Roberto Menichelli both hope to lead their teams to another final tournament ©Cassella/Divisione Calcio a 5

The lineup for UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 in Croatia will be decided over the next week when the qualifying round is played out across Europe.

Six four-team mini-tournaments will run from Thursday to Sunday in Azerbaijan, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Slovenia with the group winners and five best runners-up joining hosts Croatia in the 9 September draw in Zagreb for the finals early next year. Each of the groups contains one of the sides that triumphed in the preliminary round last month.

Spain will be hoping to win their fourth straight title but it will not be simple for them in Group 1, hosted by Azerbaijan – who reached the semi-finals on their first qualification last January in Hungary. While stalwarts Javi Rodríguez and Daniel have now retired from the Spain team, the likes of Luis Amada and Kike as well as new talents such as Pola will be in Azerbaijan where Kazakhstan and France are also present.

The 2010 runners-up Portugal are in Group 3 under new coach Jorge Braz and travel to Poland. There they will meet Belarus, who qualified for their first finals in 2010 and held Portugal 5-5 in a thrilling game. Third last year were the Czech Republic and they find themselves in a very competitive Group 4 staged by 2007 qualifiers Romania and also featuring Slovakia and Norway, who performed superbly to win all three preliminary round games in their maiden futsal tournament.

Only two countries apart from Spain have lifted the trophy and both will want to improve on quarter-final runs last time out. First they must qualify, however, and 2001 champions Russia have hardly been given an easy task in Group 2 against Serbia, who beat them 4-3 in the 2010 group stage, and hosts the Netherlands – seeking to end a seven-year finals absence. Italy, victors in 2003, go to Slovenia to take on the hosts, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Latvia.

Perhaps the most competitive section could turn out to be Group 5 where three of the 2010 finalists are involved. Hosts Ukraine have the greatest pedigree, having been runners-up twice under long-serving coach Gennadiy Lysenchuk, yet they will be challenged by Hungary and Belgium as well as relative newcomers to futsal with high ambitions, Turkey.

Qualifying round draw
Group 1: Spain, Azerbaijan (hosts), Kazakhstan, France*
Group 2: Russia, Serbia, Netherlands (hosts), Finland*
Group 3: Portugal, Belarus, Poland (hosts), Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*
Group 4: Czech Republic, Romania (hosts), Slovakia, Norway*
Group 5: Ukraine (hosts), Hungary, Belgium, Turkey*
Group 6: Italy, Slovenia (hosts), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia*

*Preliminary round winners