Coming in at 62nd in the FIFA men’s rankings, North Macedonia come into Euro 2020 as the ‘longshot’ of the whole tournament. Whilst they certainly will not be classed as dark horses for the whole entire tournament, the country with less than 22% the population of London comes in daring to dream.
A successor state of the former Yugoslavia, North Macedonia gained national independence in 1991 but only became a recognised member of FIFA in 1994. After 27 years of many ups and downs, a low of 162nd in the FIFA rankings just half a decade ago, this marks the Macedonian’s first major tournament they have ever attended.
Whilst Yugoslavia is remembered as a strong footballing nation, post World War II, North Macedonia really has lacked the same prowess. One name remembered fondly by the Macedonian supporters is Darko Pancěv, the Macedonian who won the European golden boot and scored the winning penalty in the 1991 European cup final for Red Star Belgrade, the Serbian clubs only major European accolade in their 76-year history. No Macedonian has reached Pancěv’s peak since, thus it is now down to manager Igor Angelovski to nurture the new breed of North Macedonian talent.
Angelovski’s managerial has been brief. The 45-year-old began his journey into management in just 2013, managing Rabotnički, staple of the Macedonian First league since 1998. He ended his stint with the club, situated in the capital Skopje, with a league and cup double which promptly resulted to adding the manager of North Macedonia to his CV, in the latter part of 2015. That makes him the 5th longest serving manager at the European championship this summer, though still dwarfed by the 15 years of Joachim Löw. Results have improved throughout his 6-year tenure so far, but no result may be greater than his role in convincing a Macedonian legend out of national retirement, Goran Pandev.
The number 10, who has spent almost all his career in Italy, now finds himself leading his country at a major tournament for the first time in his 21-year playing career. Part of the treble winning Inter Milan team of 2009/10, Pandev’s then manager José Mourinho described him as a “impeccable football master” who “plays for the team and always brings positive vibes to the locker room”. Known for his spotless finishing, ending this Serie A season 1st in Goals per shot, Goran is more likely to be deployed in a second striker role in a 4–2–3–1 or 3–5–2, depending on what players Angelovski will have at his disposal. His skillset also means he excels in creating, whilst also able to be a target man to receive progressive passes. Having played with greats in his time, such as Diego Milito and Edinson Cavani, Pandev will be hoping to have the same national success of those in the past.
However, every sorcerer has their apprentice and one the emphasis of Angelovski’s reign has been on bringing through the youngsters. 10 of their 26-man squad participated in the 2017 under-21 European championship. That squad included La Liga set piece specialist Enis Bardhi, who plays for mid-table outlet Levante, and a certain 17-year-old named Eljif Elmas.
Now 21, the attacking midfielder, born into a family of Turkish descent, has followed in his fellow countryman, Pandev, footsteps and currently plays his football in the city of Naples. The 6-foot-tall creative midfielder will either play on the left in the Macedonian 4–2–3–1 setup or be behind Goran Pandev in a 3–5–2. Rumoured with a move to the likes of Leeds and Benfica this summer, Elmas is flexible to play anywhere in the midfield for Gennaro Gattuso but will have more pressure on his shoulders for his country. With already 26 caps, Elmas’s strengths lie within progressing the ball with his carries and displays incredible intelligence in his off-ball escapades, able to find space anywhere in the final third. Macedonians will look towards him to progress their team up the pitch.
North Macedonia starts their campaign in Bucharest against Austria, on the 13th of June, and Hungary before travelling to Amsterdam for a tie against the Netherlands. They will look towards a ‘home-like’ support in Romania. Boban Nikolov, the Macedonian central midfielder, who perfected his craft at, the Romanian great, Gheorghe Hagi’s academy at 15, believed, “we have all the sincere football fans from Romania on our side”.
This summer, North Macedonia have nothing to lose, but their stunning 2–1 win against Germany earlier this year, a win which ended Löw’s 35-game unbeaten run the World Cup qualifying, may just classify them as unpredictable underdogs.