Euro 2020: A final hurrah for North Macedonia 'legend' Goran Pandev

By Lukas VrablikBBC Sport
Goran Pandev celebrates scoring at Euro 2020
Goran Pandev became the first North Macedonia player to score at a major tournament when he was on target against Austria
Euro 2020 on the BBC
Dates: Friday, 11 June-Sunday, 11 July. Host cities: London, Rome, Munich, Baku, St-Petersburg, Budapest, Seville, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Copenhagen. Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC Radio 5 Live, iPlayer and BBC Sport website. Click here for more details

When Igor Angelovski sat on a plane bound for Genoa in 2015, he knew he was about to have an important conversation.

But he could not have known it might prove to be the most pivotal one in the football history of North Macedonia, the country he manages and led to a first major tournament in the 30 years since gaining independence from Yugoslavia.

Their stay at Euro 2020 may have been short-lived - they were the first team to be eliminated after defeats against Austria and Ukraine - but it is the very fact they were involved in the first place that matters.

Angelovski's aim as he took that flight was to coax talismanic striker Goran Pandev, an iconic figure who won the Champions League in 2010 with Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan, out of international retirement.

Pandev, now 37, had become disillusioned with playing for his country.

Six years on, he is their record scorer with almost twice as many goals (38) as the next player on the list. It was his strike that sent North Macedonia to their first major tournament and his goal against Austria in their opening match which sparked dreams of extending their underdog story.

And, of course, he was on the scoresheet when they produced one of the biggest shocks of recent international football history when they beat Germany 2-1 in Duisburg in a World Cup qualifier in March.

These were moments football fans in the country thought would never happen, all with Pandev at the heart of them.

'Pandev is like a king'

North Macedonia's Goran Pandev celebrates scoring during a World Cup 2022 qualifier against Germany
Pandev's club career began 21 years ago and he has played for Genoa for the past six years

Pandev has confirmed the game against the Netherlands on Monday will be his last for his country. He turns 38 on 27 July.

His place in North Macedonia's football folklore is assured, though, not surprising for a man who has said previously he would trade his club trophies for a chance to play for his country on the big stage.

"Pandev is like a king for what he does," North Macedonia's centre-back Kire Ristevski, who plays for AEL Limassol, tells BBC Sport. "I cannot even explain what an amazing guy he is. He always wants to help everyone, and from him we have seen things like from a legend.

"I think there is no-one like him in North Macedonia, as a player, and also privately. He is a communicative guy and wants to talk with everyone."

Pandev has founded his own team in his hometown, Strumica, called Akademija Pandev, which got promoted to the top flight in 2017. It is one of the most successful youth football projects in the country, whose ambition is to build a consistent flow of talent.

Ristevski believes the Euros is very helpful in that regard: "It is a big chance, especially for young guys. We know that our league is not very strong, but there are players with potential.

"They can go to big teams and make progress abroad. It could help the young generation a lot."

There were jubilant scenes when Pandev equalised against Austria on 13 June but two goals in the final 12 minutes meant their tournament debut ended in defeat.

They were also in contention to cause an upset in their second game, Leeds United's Ezgjan Alioski scoring in a 2-1 defeat by Ukraine.

They were out - but hardly outplayed.

"In the second half [against Ukraine] we showed why we are at the European Championship," said Angelovski. "This North Macedonia team has quality and deserves to be here. However, we are sorry that it didn't end with a positive result."

Seizing upon a new route to the Euros

North Macedonia coach Igor Angelovski celebrates with his players after qualifying for Euro 2020
Manager Igor Angelovski has been just as important a figure as Pandev in North Macedonia's recent successes

For years the prospect of North Macedonia (named Macedonia until 2019) qualifying for either a World Cup or European Championship seemed at best remote and, at worst, non-existent.

But that changed with the advent of Uefa's Nations League, a complex competition which was initially widely derided but had as one of its unique selling points the fact it offered one of the continent's smaller footballing nations a route to qualification.

North Macedonia came out on top of a Nations League group featuring Armenia, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein, securing themselves a place in the Euro 2020 play-offs against the winners of the Nations League's other bottom-ranked mini-leagues.

That left Belarus, Kosovo, Georgia and North Macedonia facing off for a place in the Euros, with the Macedonians prevailing after victories over Kosovo and Georgia, the latter a 1-0 win in the final in Tbilisi courtesy of Pandev's second-half winner.

"It was amazing, big emotions," Ristevski says.

"When you know your country is proud of you, you cannot hold your emotions. It is a kind of emotion when you are happy but you cry. I'm not able to explain it."

Fans celebrate North Macedonia qualifying for Euro 2020 on the streets of the capital Skopje
Fans took to the streets of the capital Skopje after North Macedonia qualified for Euro 2020

A step forward for the whole country?

Qualifying for this summer's tournament was a huge moment for football fans - but also for the nation as a whole.

"This is a country where people's lives are harder than in other developed countries in Europe," says Nikola Gjurovski, editor-in-chief of football website Makfudbal.external-link

"For three decades, North Macedonia weren't even near a tournament. We could only dream about it. The national team's advance to the Euros, as well as the recent victory against Germany in World Cup qualifying, brought a lot of joy to North Macedonia.

"The football team's victories should be a signpost that the whole country can move forward and catch up with Europe in all fields."

There is also hope that the appearance at these Euros will be a stepping stone for their footballing future.

In 2016, the team was ranked 162nd in Fifa's rankings but they have moved up exactly 100 places since then.

They have a group of players competing in top European leagues - Aleksandar Trajkovski (Mallorca), Boban Nikolov (Lecce), Alioski (Leeds United), Arijan Ademi (Dinamo Zagreb) and two young midfielders, Enis Bardhi (Levante) and Eljif Elmas (Napoli), are among their key players.

The win over Germany means North Macedonia are second in their World Cup qualifying group as things stand, with the tournament in Qatar only 17 months away.

Leading them on the global stage was a prospect Pandev has decided to resist though.

Around the BBC iPlayer bannerAround the BBC iPlayer footer

Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC