UPDATE 1-Soccer-Depleted Kosovo's Euro dream shattered by North Macedonia

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SKOPJE, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Kosovo’s dream of qualifying for the Euro 2020 soccer championship, less than five years after being accepted into international football, ended with a 2-1 away defeat by neighbours North Macedonia on Thursday.

Darko Velkovski’s 33rd minute header won the semi-final playoff for the hosts, who are themselves aiming to qualify for the first major tournament in the team’s 27-year history. They face Georgia next month for a place in next year’s tournament.

Kosovo’s players collapsed onto the pitch in anguish as the final whistle blew, while home team coach Igor Angelovski rushed onto the field carrying a Macedonian flag.

“It’s very hard to find any words,” said Kosovo’s goalscorer Florent Hadergjonaj. “We need to wait and overcome this situation. It has been our dream, but we couldn’t make it happen.”

Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was finally accepted as a member of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, and then world soccer organisation FIFA, in 2016 after a long campaign.

They enjoyed a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run in 2018-19 to win their Nations League group and qualify for the playoffs which offer a back door to the Euros.

Given a rousing send-off by flag-waving supporters who also let off firecrackers when they left Pristina for the 90-kilometre road trip to Skopje on Wednesday, Kosovo were missing several key players and it proved a bridge too far.

Their Napoli defender Amir Rrahmani was not released after his club’s squad were ordered to isolate following two positive COVID-19 tests last week, while midfielders Hekuran Kryeziu and Milot Rashica plus striker Vedat Muriqi were injured.

North Macedonia were without Elif Elmas after he was among the Napoli players to test positive for COVID-19.

Kosovo made a bright start but fell behind in cruel fashion when Stefan Ristovski’s mis-hit shot deflected off defender Benjamin Kololli and crept inside the post for an own goal after 16 minutes.

But the visitors capitalised on a defensive mishap to level in the 29th. North Macedonia goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski charged out of his area to clear but lost possession and Hadergjonaj chipped the ball into the net form 25 metres.

The hosts regained the lead four minutes later when Velkovski rose to head in from a free kick.

The second half was increasingly scrappy and nervous although Kosovo nearly snatched a stoppage-time equaliser when Fidan Aliti’s shot was blocked by Dimitrievski at point-blank range.

“We conceded two sloppy goals, especially the first one,” said Kosovo’s Swiss coach Bernard Challandes. “North Macedonia are a very good side but we gave them chances and we need to accept this defeat. They played a bit better than we did.” (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)