Igor Angelovski’s side have made history by simply qualifying for the European Championship finals – anything else is a bonus.
The tears that streamed down Goran Pandev’s face said more than words ever could.
The 37-year-old striker, North Macedonia’s most capped player and record scorer, had just scored the goal that would take his fledgling nation to their first ever major finals, and the tears flowed.
“I’m so happy and emotional,” Genoa’s Pandev sobbed after his goal had earned his country their 1-0 win in Georgia in the delayed Euro 2020 playoffs final in November. “We’ve won for all our people. The dream has become a reality.”
Cynics will tell you North Macedonia’s admission to the finals has been cheapened by the manner of their qualifying success – their playoff path featured countries only from the fourth and lowest tier of the previous Nations League campaign – but Pandev and his team-mates didn’t write the rules; they simply took full advantage of them, and will duly line up in Group C as
500/1 no-hopers this summer.
Angelovski’s History Makers
North Macedonia, born three decades ago from the ashes of the former Yugoslavia (and still known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia up until two years ago), had rarely hinted that a place at Europe’s top table was ever up for grabs.
In their first-ever competitive match, a qualifier for Euro ’96, a side captained by former Inter Milan star Darko Pancev held Denmark to a 1-1 draw and they acquitted themselves well enough without ever looking like making it to England.
Qualifying campaigns then came and went with even less fanfare until the little-known Angelovski replaced Lubo Drulovic as head coach in late 2015. A previously modest mindset suddenly became ambitious.
Winning the inaugural Nations League Group D4 highlighted their improvement under Angelovski and earned them promotion to Group C where they survived their debut campaign. But, more importantly, it also gave them a shot at Euro 2020 and impressive wins over Kosovo and Georgia booked them their golden ticket to the finals.
Pandev The Glue Holding Improving Squad Together
Over the last two years North Macedonia have continued to progress and while most money is on them being at the finals to merely make up the numbers, they’ll see their prospects very differently.
And they’ll believe because Pandev believes. The veteran frontman – he’ll turn 38 just a couple of week after the finals – boasts an almost mythical status in Skopje and, despite his age, his influence is enormous.
There are only a handful of Angelovski’s squad plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues and the fact that Pandev is doing so with Genoa at his age illustrates what a talent he was and still is.
But North Macedonia need others to click in Angelovski’s preferred 3-4-3 formation where another Serie A ace, Napoli’s Eljif Elmas, is tipped for the No.10 role.
Left wing-back Egzijan Alioski has made his mark in the Premier League with Leeds while Enis Bardhi is helping Levante to new heights in La Liga and boasts a dead-ball prowess which makes him a crucial member of their midfield.
Their area of concern would be in defence. The back three who held off Georgia – Dejan Velkovski, Visar Musliu and Egzon Bejtulai – all played at the European Under-21 Championship tournament in Poland, part of a squad which conceded 11 goals in three matches as they finished bottom of their group.
Recently, however, the senior team have put in sturdier defensive efforts against so-called better countries like Israel, Poland and Austria which hints that maybe the national team’s improvements are across the board.
Do North Macedonia Have One More Surprise In Them?
Angelovski would have perused the list of runners and riders in the 24-team field and been wary of them all, fearful of none – and the newcomers could definitely have had a worse draw.
The 1988 champions Holland are the Group C heavyweights and odds-on to top a section which also features Ukraine and Austria, both clearly ranked far higher than the North Macedonians, but neither of them would be regarded as world-beaters.
22/1 that North Macedonia win the group tells us everything but with the four best third-placed teams from the six groups also going on to the last 16, Angelovski’s debutants will surely think they have a target to go at.
Maybe, just maybe, the ageless Pandev has one more trick up his sleeve.
*All odds correct at time of writing