Relief for Wales as Uefa lifts ban on Azerbaijan

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The Independent Football

Mark Hughes, the Wales manager, has welcomed Uefa's decision to lift the ban on Azerbaijan competing in the Euro 2004 qualifiers and reiterated his determination to guide Wales to the finals.

The executive committee of the game's European governing body met yesterday afternoon in Seville and its ruling will see Wales go into a crucial phase of their qualifying campaign at the start of next season with maximum points from their opening four games. The fear was that Azerbaijan's qualifying results would be expunged because of their world-wide ban, which would have deprived Wales of two victories, six points and a six-goal difference.

Such a decision would have been a boost to Serbia & Montenegro, who had been held to a 2-2 draw in Belgrade by Azerbaijan - a result which put Wales in the driving seat in their quest to reach Portugal and their first appearance in a major finals since the World Cup of 1958.

Fifa, the game's world governing body, imposed the ban on 15 April in response to a long-standing conflict between the Azerbaijan football federation and the majority of the country's top-flight clubs.

The domestic championship was abandoned as a result of the conflict and the top clubs prevented their players from playing for the national team, with tax officials also probing allegations of fraud at the Azerbaijan federation.

Uefa was then forced to ratify that ban, which put Azerbaijan's involvement in the Euro 2004 qualifiers in doubt. But last week, a combined Uefa and Fifa fact-finding commission went to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to meet both football and government officials.

League football started again last Sunday and new local authority elections for the game are to be held, paving the way for the ban to be lifted.

Speaking from the Wales team hotel in San Jose, where his squad are preparing for their friendly against the United States, Hughes said: "This is a great relief. I believe that Uefa has come to the right decision. It has been a very worrying month for us, mainly because we just couldn't find out what was going on."

It means that Azerbaijan will be able to stage their Group Nine home match with Serbia & Montenegro on 11 June. If that had not been played, the Football Association of Wales feared there would be no other date to stage the match before the qualifying games end in October.

Play-off dates have already been set aside in November - and Wales have already booked the Millennium Stadium in case they end up finishing second in the group. With the draw for the finals in Portugal set for December, it is hard to see how Serbia & Montenegro's trip to Baku could have been fitted in.

Now that the match has been given the go-ahead for June, Wales can look forward to a crucial three-match run in the space of 22 days during the early part of next season - against Serbia & Montenegro, Italy and Finland - with real confidence rather than having had their advantage slashed.