This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
North Macedonia will make history this summer, taking part in their first major tournament, and the national team’s success has created total euphoria in the country. Goran Pandev, Elif Elmas, Enis Bardhi, Arijan Ademi, Stefan Ristovski, Ezgjan Alioski, Boban Nikolov and the rest are already heroes back home for what they have done. Just to qualify is a huge success for a small Balkan country with a huge football heart but the coach, Igor Angelovski, does not want the story to end there. The main aim is to continue to achieve this summer and not be a footnote.
“We cannot be satisfied just because we have qualified,” he says. “Our aim is to go through to the knockout stage and I strongly believe we have a group of players who can surprise the rest of Europe again.” The optimism partly stems from how they qualified. After dominating their Nations League group they beat Kosovo in Skopje and Georgia in Tbilisi to reach this summer’s tournament. Then they trumped all that by beating Germany 2-1 in Duisburg in a World Cup qualifier. No wonder hopes are high back home.
Tactically, Angelovski will stick to his 3-5-2 formation because the midfield is the strongest part of this team. From right to left, there is Dinamo Zagreb’s Ristovski, Lecce’s Nikolov, Levante’s Bardhi (although he has recently tested positive for Covid and is a doubt for the opening game), Dinamo Zagreb’s Ademi and Leeds’ Alioski. All have been key to the success of the team in recent years. Up front will be the irreplaceable “Italian duo” of Pandev and Elmas. Angelovski will be without another attacker, Udinese’s Ilija Nestorovski, because of injury but also has a Plan B: a 4-2-3-1 with Pandev on his own up front.
North Macedonia face Austria and Ukraine in Bucharest, with hopes of progressing from Group C likely to be decided before they travel to Amsterdam to play the Netherlands. “I think we will have all the sincere football fans from Romania on our side,” says Nikolov, who developed at Gheorghe Hagi’s academy. “I know the Romanians love Macedonia and with their support we can surprise Austria and Ukraine. After those games we will face the Netherlands with even more fighting spirit.”
In 2013 FC Rabotnicki’s club president unexpectedly decided to change managers, giving the top job to Angelovski, the club’s sporting director at the time. He didn’t regret it. Angelovski proved to be an excellent coach and won the double with the club. His feats did not go unrecognised and the then-president of the Macedonian FA, Ilcho Gjorgjioski, first made him assistant to Ljubinko Drulovic and then head coach. On his first day in the job he went to Genoa to convince Pandev to return and the rest is history. Angelovski was overcome by emotion after the victory against Germany, saying: “We have made our people happy. It is like winning the Euros. I came here with these boys because they promised something special. My wife is in hospital with Covid symptoms but luckily she is better now. Thank you all. What more can I say? Nothing. Just to cry.”
Goran Pandev is the biggest icon in the history of North Macedonian football by some distance. A Champions League winner with Inter in 2010, he decided to retire from international football three years later but came back in 2016. Since then he has been reborn. Booed at times in the past for poor performances and results, he is now a real hero to the people in every sense of the word. Still at Genoa at the age of 37, he reached 100 Serie A career goals this term.
Happy for a year’s delay
For the first time in history, North Macedonia will have two brothers in the national team. Milan Ristovski of Spartak Trnava, the younger brother of Stefan Ristovski from Dinamo Zagreb has been called up for the Euros. A year ago he was struggling with injuries and was not in the manager’s plans. “I am really happy to be part of the national team at Euro 2020. I am still experiencing my dream at this age. I will try to justify the call,” he says.
What the fans sing
“ОДИМЕ НА ЕВРОПСКО ПРВЕНСТВО” – “We are going to the European Championship”. A song that eulogises the courage of the generation of Macedonian footballers led by Goran Pandev.
What the fans say
“Гранде Пандев и натаму погодува, Македонија победува!” – “As long as Goran Pandev is in the team and scores goals,Macedonia will win.”
“Сега е наше време! На Европско првенство, таму ни е место – сонот наш од детство!” – “Now is our time! At the Euro there is a place for us; our childhood dream.”
“Со Барди и Адеми немаме проблеми!” – “With Enis Bardh and Arian Ademi in the midfield, we can not have problems in controlling the game.”
Despite having a difficult year during which he left Sporting in Portugal, Ristovski did not forget his humanitarian side. In the darkest days of the pandemic he donated medical equipment to the two largest Covid clinics in North Macedonia. “Thank you for taking care of our fellow citizens and not sparing yourself in this common battle,” Ristovski said to the country’s medical workers.
Vladimir Bulatovic writes for Ekipa.
Follow him on Twitter @BULI257.
For a player profile of Elif Elmas click here.