How Croatia, Italy and Ireland fared in Europe’s first World Cup play-offs in 1997

A few of the teams facing play-offs for next summer’s World Cup have been here before. Croatia and Italy qualified 20 years ago ... unlike the Republic of Ireland

By Richard Foster for The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Guardian Sport Network

Of the eight countries who have qualified for the 2018 World Cup European play-offs, three of them – Croatia, Italy and the Republic of Ireland – were involved in the first Uefa play-offs held 20 years ago for qualification to the 1998 World Cup in France. At the play-offs in 1997, we witnessed the emergence of future star players, the end of a few careers, the arrival of new nations, the departure of another and one of the most extraordinary two-legged ties in international football.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, there was a rapid expansion of countries admitted to Uefa in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup. With France entering automatically as hosts, there were 14 places available for the remaining 49 European teams as opposed to the 12 slots made available for 37 teams in 1994. Among the dozen debutants were newly independent Balkan countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, plus former Soviet states such as Georgia and Moldova.

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