One English newspaper said the idea was “mad”, while a global broadcaster dismissed it as a “terrible, horrible, no-good idea”, which would ruin the “perfect” 16-team format that had been in place since 1996.

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But try telling that to the fans of Iceland, who will be making their major tournament debut in France next year, or Wales, who have not been seen at a major finals since the 1958 World Cup but are virtually certain of joining them.

Northern Ireland, who have failed to qualify for every tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, also stand on the brink of giving their fans a summer holiday with a Gallic flavour.

UEFA President Michel Platini has embraced the expansion he proposed in 2009 and the Frenchman told Reuters this week he was delighted at how the preliminary tournament had played out over the last year.

“The decision to expand was taken in the interest of promotion and development of football in Europe,” he said of the proposal made at the UEFA Congress in Copenhagen six years ago.

“We have been delighted with the positive impact the new format has had on national team football across the continent,” he added.

“We have seen extremely competitive groups with several teams fighting for qualification, a high quality of football played and great enthusiasm in several nations who have never or rarely qualified for a major tournament.

“The European qualifiers have been a success so far and we are sure the final tournament in France next year will be the most competitive to date.”

With two rounds to play, England, Austria, Iceland and the Czech Republic will definitely join hosts France next summer, while 31 teams remain in contention and 18 have been eliminated.

With so many teams still involved in the race to either qualify automatically by finishing in the top two, or grab a third-place playoff lifeline, far more games than usual are likely to be tense affairs when qualifying concludes next month.

DUTCH JEOPARDY

One issue that united most critics of the expansion plan was that the qualifiers would be a procession for the most powerful nations but even that argument has been turned on its head with the Netherlands, World Cup semi-finalists last year, needing results to go their way just to squeeze into the playoffs.

World champions Germany and European champions Spain both top their groups and are bankers to qualify but neither are mathematically certain just yet.

The Dutch though, are facing elimination, having lost twice to an Iceland side that have risen almost 100 places in the FIFA rankings in the last year after tasting defeat just once in six qualifiers in reaching the finals with three matches to spare.

Former Sweden international Stefan Schwarz, whose clubs included Benfica, Arsenal, Fiorentina and Valencia, is also full of praise for teams like Iceland, who have qualified under his old national boss Lars Lagerbeck.

“The expansion of the tournament gave an opportunity for other countries to qualify and get some more experience,” he told Reuters at the Soccerex global convention in Manchester, England earlier this week.

“But of course, not all the games in the finals are going to be as competitive as before when there were less teams,” he added.

“The teams coming through are all well-organised, they have to be given credit for qualifying. Iceland so far have been really brilliant and with a great manager, Lars Lagerbeck, who I was lucky to play for with Sweden.

“I think it is good for football.”

Former Scotland boss Andy Roxburgh, now technical director of the Asian Football Confederation, believes the expanded finals will have a positive affect on the European game.

“There was an acceptance that the majority of medium or modest-sized associations had through hard work, investment, dedicated coach education and intense player development, raised their standards and would not be out of place at the finals,” he said.

“On the evidence of the qualification rounds, there are grounds for optimism.”

Apart from Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are plenty of other outsiders dreaming of securing one of the 19 places still up for grabs.

Albania, Israel, Estonia and the once-mighty Hungary, now ranked 37th in the world, are still in the running and after the upsets witnessed so far, none of them can be discounted.

(Editing by John O’Brien)

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Jude Bolton has backed Sam Reid and Kurt Tippett to fill the Lance Franklin-sized gap in Sydney’s attack for the start of the AFL finals.

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The Swans great and Seven Network commentator noted that Reid and Tippett would take strong form over the past few weeks into Saturday’s qualifying final against minor premiers Fremantle at Domain Stadium.

Franklin’s absence because of health issues is the latest of several significant personnel blows for the Swans.

Co-captain Kieren Jack (knee) and fellow midfielder Luke Parker (ankle) are also sidelined, while Nick Smith (hamstring) is in doubt.

But Bolton and former Swans coach Paul Roos said Sydney, with their famous Bloods culture, would relish the challenge of beating the Dockers in Perth.

As Sydney power into the finals with four-straight wins, Reid has also stepped up his form.

He has taken 31 marks in the past three weeks and kicked six goals.

“He’s such a confidence player, Sam, and I really believe he’s got his confidence up,” Bolton told AAP.

“He’s just on fire and Tippett is really relishing that forward-ruck role.

“He’s had some real statement games in the last month or so.

“Both of them have increased their confidence and are backing themselves to do their role.”

A premiership key forward three years ago when he was just 20, Reid has been less prominent since the arrivals of high-profile teammates Franklin and Tippett.

He has spent time further up the ground and in the ruck, but last week’s 11 marks and three goals against Gold Coast showcased his ability in attack.

Bolton added Sydney were moving the ball much better out of defence and through the midfield, meaning better opportunities for their forwards.

“It’s a monumental challenge with the injuries and obviously a leave of absence with Buddy, but they love that underdog tag,” Bolton said.

“It is such a team ethos at the Sydney Swans, the fact that it doesn’t matter what sort of cattle they have running out there.

“They’ve had some big wins travelling interstate.

“It holds no fear to head to Perth, even though they battled there a little earlier this year.”

Roos agrees that regardless of Sydney’s problems, they will take on Fremantle thinking they can win.

“What they do have is a really core group, a nucleus of guys who know how to play and know how to play finals football,” the current Melbourne coach said.

“They know how to prepare and they know how to go about their business.”

But Roos also noted Dockers coach Ross Lyon would know what’s coming.

Lyon was an assistant coach under Roos at Sydney in the mid-2000s.

“Ross has been part of that, creating it along with John (Longmire), so Ross would understand exactly what he faces,” Roos said of Sydney’s Bloods culture.

“He won’t get sucked in by ‘well, he’s out, he’s out, he’s out’ – he understands that Freo have to play their best footy to win.”

SYDNEY WITH AND WITHOUT LANCE FRANKLIN IN 2015:

* With: 13-4

* Without: 3-2

Sydney’s leading goalkickers this season:

* Lance Franklin 47

* Kurt Tippett 39

* Adam Goodes 23

* Luke Parker 18

* Sam Reid, Isaac Heeney 15

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They’re the hottest team in the NRL outside of Bondi, but Canterbury insist they can go up a gear in Saturday’s NRL elimination final against St George-Illawarra.

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While the Sydney Roosters are favourites for the title given their 12-game winning streak, the Bulldogs are also flying on a five-game run.

However prop David Klemmer says the team isn’t getting carried away with their recent results.

Despite their strong run in, last year’s grand finalists fell short of a top four spot and will now be fighting to stay alive in the competition on Saturday.

Competition heavyweights Brisbane and South Sydney have fallen victim to the Bulldogs over the past month, but Klemmer says sketchy wins over Gold Coast and the Warriors prove there is plenty of room for improvement.

“We’ve been pretty disappointed with some of our performances this season,” Klemmer said on Wednesday.

“We’ve discussed (after the Warriors game) that we didn’t perform well.

“We know where we stand and what would’ve been. Now we’ve got to come out and play semi-final football.”

Second-rower Josh Jackson said this week’s do-or-die clash is a consequence of their mixed form during the year.

“It’s all on the line now. We were scrappy against the Warriors last week, so we’ve got a fair bit of room to improve,” he said.

In the Bulldogs’ favour is their finals experience, having not missed September action since Des Hasler took over at Belmore in 2012.

In contrast, the Dragons haven’t played semi-final football since Wayne Bennett left Wollongong at the end of 2011.

Jackson said their previous exposure to finals footy allowed them to recognise the areas they needed to work on.

“It’s a different kind of game. If you start slow, you probably miss it a little bit,” he said.

“We’ve got to really improve on our start and start playing more of a grinding style of footy.”

The Bulldogs have split their two games against the Dragons this year, going down 31-6 in round 6 before exacting revenge with a 29-16 victory in round 13.

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Mining giant Anglo American will shut down a Hunter Valley coal mine so workers can attend a meeting to decide whether the mine is allowed to open a new pit close to horse studs.

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Hundreds of people are expected to descend on the town of Denman on Thursday when the independent NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) begins two days of hearings of people supporting and opposing the Drayton South coal mine proposal.

Nearly 120 people are registered to speak for and against the mine.

The high-profile Coolmore and Darley thoroughbred studs, local winemakers and farmers are bitterly opposed to the Drayton South project.

The mine was rejected by the PAC in October, 2014, on the grounds the 100 million tonne mine was not in the public interest and a threat to the thoroughbred and wine industries.

Drayton South’s owner, Anglo American, in May put forward a revised project to take 75 million tonnes.

The NSW Department of Planning subsequently found that blasting, air quality and water impacts would not adversely affect horses at the studs and in August recommended approval.

The project has now gone to the PAC for independent review.

An Anglo American spokesman said the Drayton South mine would be closed to allow workers to attend the meeting.

“The workers are very worried and want to show how concerned they are,” the spokesman said.

“If this doesn’t get up they are not going to have a job.”

Anglo American says 500 jobs will be lost if the mine is not approved.

The Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association slammed the Department of Planning after it recommended approval of the new project, saying the department had approved the previous plan rejected by the PAC in 2014.

“Each and every reason the previous mine was refused remains valid today,” HTBA president Cameron Collins said.

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The Abbott government has suffered another blow in the parliament, with its controversial budget measure to force young people to wait for welfare voted down.

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The Australian Greens, Labor and crossbench senators joined forces on Wednesday to reject the bill, which would have forced people under 25 to wait one month for welfare payments.

It was a compromise on the initial plan revealed in the Abbott government’s first budget, which would have imposed a six-month waiting time on young people looking for work.

The bill would have also cut payments for people aged 22 to 24 by $48 per week.

Assistant social services minister Mitch Fifield said evidence from New Zealand showed when a similar wait-for-welfare measure was introduced 40 per cent of job seekers remained off welfare.

During the waiting period, young people would complete pre-benefit activities such as learning to write a resume and building job seeker profiles online, he said.

And job seekers who had significant barriers to work would not be required to complete the full waiting period.

But Labor says the measure will push young people into financial hardship and poverty and adversely affect mental health.

The opposition maintains there is no evidence the measure would actually help people into work.

Labor senator Claire Moore said young people would be expected to turn up to training and other activities but would not have access to money to help pay for transport, food and housing.

Prior to the vote, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the Senate, saying the government would reintroduce the bill if it failed.

“We remain absolutely committed to the measures we have brought to the parliament on this issue,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

“We do not believe that we should be sending a message to young people that it should be okay to go from the school gate to the Centrelink front door.”

The Australian Greens said four weeks was long enough for a young person to get into $1000 of debt.

“This measure would have entrenched poverty and made life more difficult for Australian youth,” Greens senator Rachel Siewert said in a statement.

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Former Hawthorn teammates Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis have admitted they were surprised by Lance Franklin’s battle with mental illness.

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The pair threw their support behind Franklin after it emerged the Sydney superstar would not play in his side’s qualifying final clash against Fremantle on Saturday because of a serious mental health issue.

Lewis, who will reportedly be in Franklin’s bridal party later in the year, said he was unaware of his close mate’s illness until it was reported on Tuesday.

“This is something that’s taken me by surprise,” Lewis told Fox Footy’s AFL 360 program.

“This has happened pretty quickly in my eyes.

“Hopefully he’s in a good place where he’s got people who can help him and he can come out the other side.”

Both Lewis and Roughead said they had sent messages to Franklin to offer their support.

Roughead said he would love for Franklin to line up for Sydney as they kick off their finals campaign in Perth, but football was a secondary concern to his mental health.

“I can’t personally say I noticed anything, but I just hope the big fella’s okay,” Roughead told 3AW’s Sports Today.

“He’s one of the main reasons a lot of people go and watch footy so hopefully he gets better soon.

“I just hope the big fella’s okay because he’s very, very good to be around when he’s nice and happy.

“I hope he gets back to that type of feeling soon.”

Sydney insisted on Tuesday that Franklin’s mental health issues were unrelated to an epileptic seizure the three-time Coleman Medallist suffered on Friday.

Roughead, Lewis and Franklin played alongside each other in the Hawks’ 2008 and 2013 premierships.

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Dozens of family members and fans have packed a western Sydney council meeting to support embattled newlywed and deputy mayor Salim Mehajer – as he declares he’s not going anywhere.

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Four councillors on Auburn City Council called an extraordinary general meeting for Wednesday night to urge Mr Mehajer to step down “in light of the continuing public outrage”.

Mr Mehajer shot to the headlines last month when he shut down a suburban Sydney street for his lavish nuptials, which included a fighter jet flyover, $50 million worth of luxury cars and an ARIA-award-winning wedding singer.

In a defiant message posted on his Facebook page before the meeting, Mr Mehajer wrote: “NO! I will not resign.”

Mums wearing hijabs turned up to Auburn’s civic centre with babes in prams; men wearing “Mehajer Bros” sweatshirts wove their way through the media contingent and a young woman in sky-high heels handed out flyers bearing the words: “Our voice, our choice”.

Once inside they packed into the public gallery and sat in stairways, where they cheered, heckled and shouted accusations of “tall poppy syndrome”.

Councillor George Campbell formally moved the unsuccessful motion calling on Mr Mehajer to stand down on Wednesday night.

He said he had been stopped in the street by residents furious about notes dropped in Lidcombe letterboxes before the deputy mayor’s wedding, warning neighbours not to park on the street.

And the council’s general manager told the meeting there had been 400 phone calls and nearly 300 emails from “disappointed” members of the public.

The NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole, spurred on by questions about Mr Mehajer’s voting record, brushes with the law and mystery financial backers, has this week promised three-strikes laws to ban misbehaving councillors from holding office for up to five years.

The state government will also repeal a 2012 amendment that allowed councillors to vote on matters from which they stood to benefit financially.

The opposition wants to go further, by banning property developers and real estate agents from local councils altogether.

But Mr Mehajer was resolute, telling council that although he knew he had detractors, he believed most people were on his side.

“There’s no offence taken to that (motion), I think it’s quite valid,” he said.

“But I will be sticking by my community and for that reason I will not resign.”

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David Flint was 16-years-old when Queen Elizabeth II paid her first visit to Australia.

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It was 1954, and the recently-crowned Queen accompanied by Prince Phillip sailed into Sydney Harbour after more than six weeks at sea.

Professor Flint, now the National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, said the public clamoured to meet the Queen.

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“There was this enormous feeling of excitement and pleasure across the country,” he said.

“Here was this young, beautiful woman and her handsome consort, coming to Australia. I think the country was absolutely united because there was very strong support for the royal family, particularly during the war.

“The king had been a symbol of resistance against Hitler and there was this feeling of here is the Queen, finally among us.”

It was the first time a reigning monarch had set foot on Australian soil.

The Queen has since visited Australia another 15 times, opening the Opera House and the new Parliament House.

Now that she is the longest-reigning monarch in British history, republicans are using the milestone to call for the Queen to be the last non-Australian head of state.

Australian Republic Movement Chairman Peter FitzSimons said the country is ready to step away from the Commonwealth.

“We’ve got people across the political spectrum supporting us,” he said.

“We’re not arguing for revolution, we’re arguing for revolution. We’re saying, the time has come.”

For life-long supporters such as Professor Flint, Queen Elizabeth’s record-setting reign represents a key part of Australia’s history and – he hopes – its future.

“She said that my whole life, whether it be long or short shall be dedicated to your service,” he said.

“What she promised was service. That key, what she promised, was service and we see that now.”

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Around the country, Australians are opening their hearts and, in some cases, their homes to Syrian refugees.

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The announcement from Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday that Australia will take an additional 12,000 refugees amid the Middle East humanitarian crisis tapped into a positive spirit around the nation.

A listener to Melbourne radio station 3AW, Mark Stanley, offered a spare room in his house at Macclesfield in the Dandenongs to house refugees.

“It’s just basic human kindness. As Australians, in our DNA we have this inherent want to kick in and get things done,” he said.

The call triggered a number of similar offers.

Catherine Scarth, chief executive of refugee and migrant re-settlement agency AMES Australia says the idea might work.

“Generally when refugees come the first thing they obviously want to do is to feel safe but the biggest thing they talk to us about is wanting to connect to the Australian community,” she said.

“In a sense, ideas like this make that happen really quickly.”

The mood touched Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has already suggested the Puckapunyal army base in central Victoria could house refugees.

“We should be proud … that we’ve got ordinary, hard-working Victorians who are prepared to open their homes and their hearts to make sure that people get a second chance at life,” he told reporters.

SA Premier Premier Jay Weatherill says South Australia expects to take about 900 refugees and will also pledge up to $4 million to help with the resettlement costs.

He says the old Inverbrackie detention centre in the Adelaide Hills could be ideal for the task.

“I’m receiving floods of offers from business people, from community groups, from individuals in our community who are offering up their homes, offering their resources to meet this humanitarian crisis,” he said.

The Maritime Union of Australia’s Queensland branch has agreed to pay for a Syrian refugee family’s transport to Australia and cover its accommodation and resettlement costs for the next 12 months.

“We want to help at least one family escape the horrors of the refugee crisis,” branch secretary Bob Carnegie said.

In Western Australia, Premier Colin Barnett has announced the state will take 1000 Syrian refugees as part of Australia’s once-off intake and will meet with agencies on Friday to formulate a re-settlement plan.

Syrian refugees could boost local communities and economies if they are allowed to resettle in regional areas, Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria says.

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