In 2003, former Red Star Belgrade striker Darko Pancev was chosen as Macedonia's Golden Player for being an outstanding player in the last 50 years. If that decision were to be taken now, Goran Pandev would be the choice without much hesitation. The 37-year-old has been a massive influence on the national team and the growth of the sport in the South European country.
Part of the national team for 20 years now, Pandev has scored a record 37 goals while earning 118 caps. Among them was a close finish in Tbilisi in November. With the assist from Ilija Nestorovski, Pandev not only scored the opening " and, eventually, the only " goal of the game against Georgia, his 36th for Macedonia, he had ensured the tiny nation of just over two million was going to play their first European Championship.
"That is my dearest goal because finally, we qualified for a major tournament," he has said.
The magnitude of that win, and of the achievement, cannot be understated. Five years ago, North Macedonia were 162nd ranked team out of 200 in the FIFA rankings. Despite some surprise results such as 2-2 draws against England and Netherlands in 2002 and 2004 respectively, Macedonia had found it difficult to go deep in qualifying tournaments. Not this time.
Played in an empty stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was greeted with loud celebrations in capital Skopje. Hundreds came out in numbers, blared their car horns, and unfurled the flag. In Strumica, Pandev's hometown, trumpets were played alongside the legendary song "Biser Balkanski" (Balkan Pearl) at his coffee bar. Back in Tbilisi, players interrupted manager Igor Angelovski's press conference with loud chants and dancing.
If Pandev hadn't already cemented his status as Macedonia's best sportsperson, this would have done it. His importance can also be highlighted by the fact that he was persuaded to re-join the side after two years away.
Pandev has spent a large portion of his career in Italy where he won the treble with Inter Milan in 2010 and Coppa Italia with Napoli and Lazio. For the national team, he's pivotal and Angelovski admits as so much.
"He is the best football player in our history and I'm happy and grateful that he accepted to come back as our leader, both on and off the pitch," Angelovski, who persuaded Pandev to return, had told news agency AFP.
Off the pitch also he plays a role. Last year he auctioned his 100th international shirt with the proceeds going to a hospital fighting the coronavirus battle. In 2010, he founded a football academy in Strumica, a town of 35,000 habitants known for farming, which has gone on from being an A-team to a professional league club now (Akademija Pandev). For him, the aim is to pass on the baton to the future generation.
"The national team jersey is holy for me, greatest in the world and each time I try to do my best. I have been wearing this jersey for twenty years and I want to transfer my experience and professionalism on the field to the younger generations. I certainly like the popularity, but I always have respect for all. I want to help and I never felt as a celebrity," he told Macedonia Football.
Since that night in Georgia, Pandev has scored the opening goal against Germany in a stunning 2-1 upset in 2022 World Cup Qualifier. It was the 2014 champions' first home defeat in two decades. The win a sign of the capability of this team.
It could very well be Pandev's swansong having carried the team for two decades after making his debut in 2000.
"Euro 2020 is the peak of my career," he says, adding that he will "probably" end his career after the tournament.
Elmas rises from melting pot of ethnicities
The former Yugoslav country, despite this huge achievement alone, strives to garner the support of the masses. Ever since gaining independence in 1991, the natives have either supported Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, or Turkey. The national team comprises of ethnic Macedonians, Albanians, and Turks.
This melting pot of ethnicities plays perfectly for this side that puts all of it aside and works together. "We really have made a national team that lives united as a family, that will die for each other on the pitch," Angelovski said.
A star of today's national team, Eljif Elmas, who plays for Napoli and scored the winner against Germany, has Turkish roots.
Elmas, 21, was born in an area that housed Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, and Roma. At 12, he was spotted by Angelovski and brought under his wing at Rabotnicki. Before heading to Poland for the U-21 European Championship in 2017, he was asked to represent Turkey by Fatih Terim and he turned the offer down. His display earned him a five-year contract from Fenerbahce in Turkey. His career trajectory took him to Napoli after a personal phone call from Carlo Ancelotti.
Having already demonstrated his ability in qualifying, the big stage could result in another big move. Inter Milan, Tottenham, and Manchester City have been suitors in the past.
Goalkeepers: Stole Dimitrievski (Rayo Vallecano/ESP), Damjan Siskovski (Doxa/CYP), Riste Jankov (Rabotnicki)
Defenders: Stefan Ristovski (Dinamo Zagreb/CRO), Visar Musliu (MOL Fehervar/HUN), Egzon Bejtulai (Shkendija), Kire Ristevski (Ujpest/HUN), Gjoko Zajkov (Charleroi/BEL), Darko Velkovski (Rijeka/CRO), Ezgjan Alioski (Leeds United/ENG)
Midfielders: Arijan Ademi (Dinamo Zagreb/CRO), Enis Bardhi (Levante/ESP), Stefan Spirovski (AEK Larnaca/CYP), Boban Nikolov (Lecce/ITA), Tihomir Kostadinov (Ruzomberok/SVK), Ferhan Hasani (Partizani/ALB), Eljif Elmas (Napoli/ITA), Daniel Avramovski (Kayserispor/TUR), Darko Curlinov (VfB Stuttgart/GER), Marjan Radeski (Akademija Pandev)
Forwards: Goran Pandev (Genoa/ITA), Aleksandar Trajkovski (Real Mallorca/ESP), Ivan Trickovski (AEK Larnaca/CYP), Vlatko Stojanovski (Chambly/FRA on loan from Nimes/FRA), Krste Velkovski (Sarajevo/BIH), Milan Ristovski (Spartak Trnava/SVK).