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Rising Nations: The birth of North Macedonia

Matchday 2 of qualification for the 2016 EUROS. Macedonian winger Besart Abdurahimi scored an injury-time winner against Luxembourg, sending the former Yugoslavic nation in a tie for second in UEFA qualifying Group C. 

They would then lose eight of their remaining nine matches in qualifying. 

All-time leading goalscorer and the treble-winning Goran Pandev of Inter Milan had retired following failure in the previous cycle’s World Cup qualification. To make matters worse, noisy neighbours and bitter rivals Albania managed to qualify for the same Euros. 

Yet six years later, FYR Macedonia doesn’t even exist. Under the new identity of North Macedonia (courtesy of the 2018 Prespa Agreement) the nation finds itself sitting at Europe’s most prominent table. How did this happen? 

The answer lies within a series of platitudes. The return of an old face. A rising crop of young talent. A magical run, and of course, some rule shifts in their favour.

Will these factors amalgamate to a flash in the pan or the birth of a new upstart?

Pandev in solitude

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, talent in the region has mostly hailed from two stomping grounds: Serbia and Croatia. 

Golden generations from the Slavic powerhouses grinded against grander giants at World Cups. Names like Suker, Vidic, and Modric graced the grass, whilst little-old Macedonia had but a solemn grace to grasp. Goran Pandev. 

Pandev’s relationship with the National Team has been far from straightforward.

‘He too became fed up with the failures and bad leadership of the federation, leading to his early retirement from national team duty in 2013,” explained Aleksandr Zlateski, founder of the successful site on all things Macedonian football, @Macedonianfooty

In a nation with one of the worst UEFA Coefficients by Domestic League rank, Pandev’s successful club career in Italian football unlocked a critical gateway for talented local talents. 

The striker’s own career commenced in FK Belasica’s youth academy. He played just one season in the top flight, aged seventeen , where he scored six in eighteen. Few in the First Division found success either with the national team or in securing transfers away.

Ferhan Hasani scored 13 in 27 in a league-winning effort Shkendija before securing a transfer to VfL Wolfsburg at age 21. Following just four appearances for the club and then two underwhelming seasons for Brondby (Denmark), Hasani returned to Shkendija. Despite 37 goal involvements in another league-winning campaign in 2016-17, Hasani remains uncapped since 2016. 

Pandev’s journey to Italy began with a 2001 transfer to Inter Milan and featured a series of murky co-ownership dealings. An eleven goal 2005-06 league campaign for Lazio then solidified his status with the Biancocelesti. 

After winning a treble and a career featuring 97 Serie A goals, the everlasting striker still remains a force in Italian football; his two first-half strikes sunk his former-employers at Napoli on the 6th of February. 

Appropriately, Zletsky named him “the heart and soul of the national team.” 

Bigger than just one name

The cross-generational Pandev, now 37, finds himself as the old man in the current National Team setup. 

If you subtract the thirty seven year-old’s inclusion in the Euro-cementing victory over Georgia, the average age of the rest of the XI was 27.3. 

Notably absent from that equation, however, was versatile Levante midfielder Enis Bardhi (25). The attack-minded forward who’s always hungry for defensive actions left hometown Skupi F.C. (in the capital city of Skopje) for what at first looked like a nomadic trip around Europe. He joined Hasani at Brondby at age 18 before stints in the Swedish second division and the Hungarian league. 

Look for Bardhi, who scored 19 in 100 games for Levante since securing a €1.5 million in 2017, to be on free-kicks. 

He may play with or behind the crown-jewel-to-be of Macedonian football, Elif Elmas (21). The attacking midfielder too left Macedonia as a teenager. A wildly successful spell at Fenerbahce secured him a €16 million move to Napoli. 

‘He typically does get a chance off the bench in most games. But he is twenty one years old and it is not easy to play regularly for a club like Napoli,’ explained Zletsky. 

‘He remains a crucial performer for the national team. Despite the lack of starts at club level, Napoli did sign him to an extension recently which shows that they still value/rate him long-term.’

However, he did start in the losing effort against Genoa that featured Pandev’s brace.

The name most English fans recognize is Leeds winger/wingback Ezgjan Alioski, who left Macedonia aged just 11. Seeing a trend? 

Look for him to bring a Bielsa-like width to the team. (Season heatmap below)

The D(ream) Path

‘It is important to be honest and say that our national team only reached EURO 2021 because we were in League D, the lowest league, in the Nations League,’ Zletsky explained. 

‘We had to beat countries like Kosovo and Georgia, which are ok sides, but they are certainly no powerhouses. If we were in League C or B, a EURO 2021 berth would not have happened.’ 

While modest, Macedonia undeniably took the golden ticket presented by UEFA and snatched it before a rival could. 

Five wins in six in their Nations League group and an impressive third place finish in their EURO qualifying group (Macedonia’s highest ever), booked the nation’s spot in the playoffs. 

Centre back Darko Velkovski’s winner was the difference in the tempestuous Path D semi-final against Kosovo. They too feature a cadre of burgeoning talent in Italy (Vedat Muriqi, Amir Rrahmani, Mergim Vojvoda) with a signature tentpole: Werder Bremen’s Milot Rashica. Both Balkan nations have long been in territorial disputes with nations of the regions following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Either winner of the contest would be vindications of golden generations behind the backings of charged supporters.

A team separated by just three spots (out of 55 nations) in the UEFA portion of the FIFA rankings followed: the Republic of Georgia. Macedonia would be treated to a fairy tale: a Pandev winner. 

‘Sports and non-sports fans were excited to witness the football national team do something positive for once,’ said Zletsky. 

Tomorrow is today

North Macedonia are now a long way from ‘Path D’. Their Euro group consists themselves, Netherlands, Austria and Ukraine. This is a world away from their Nations League group of Armenia, Gibraltar and Lichtenstein.

On the bright side. sixteen of the twenty four invited teams qualify for the round of 16. North Macedonia likely have the lowest expectations of any country in the field. 

But considering the aforementioned age profile of the squad, this may be the greatest chance Macedonia has of reaching a knockout stage for a generation. 

Further chance is on the horizon. ‘Goran Pandev will be retiring as he will be on the cusp of turning 38 years old then. Several other players who are in their early to mid-30’s could also retire from national team duty,’ says Zletsky. 

‘The head coach, Igor Angelovski, only has a contract until the end of EURO 2021. So it would not surprise me to see a change in coach too. Current U-21 national team head coach Blagoja Milevski is being groomed as the replacement who will lead the national team post-Pandev.’

If Elmas is the future, Bardhi and Alioski are the bridges. An appearance at a major tournament could do wonders for the aspirations of Elmas’s generation. But without the subsequent international manpower, any positivity gained will be effectively moot. 

Or will it?

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