Tiny North Macedonia looks to find its place under the football sun at EURO 2020

Skopje, North Macedonia/Bucharest, Romania — “For us Macedonians, to see our national team in such a big competition is something we have dreamed of since we were kids. To hear our anthem and see our players at the European Championship for me personally is a wish that I thought would never come true.” Mice Trpkovski, football fan coming from the Macedonian capital Skopje, tells Glavcom.

“But the dreams end and reality begins with the first whistle of the referee.”

Forty-year-old Trpkovski is one of the many fans that took the trip to Bucharest, Romania and to support North Macedonia and the Macedonian national football team in its maiden football tournament appearance at the EURO 2020.

North Macedonia has been indeed waiting a long time, or 30 years to be more precise, to make its bow at a football tournament of such magnitude. The country become independent in 1991 after the breakup of former Yugoslavia, and since then, its biggest football successes until 2020 were occasional draws in qualifying or friendly games against football giants such as England or Italy.

However, all of this changed for the better at the end of last year, when North Macedonia beat Georgia 1–0 in Tbilisi, in the play-off finals of the Nations Leagues Group D. Through this route, the tiny Balkan country with a population of around 2 million people, qualified for the EURO 2020, playing in the Group C, with Ukraine, Austria and the Netherlands.

During the last few months, the country and its people are “living and breathing” football, supporting their football heroes and hoping that the Macedonian national team will give them an even bigger surprise and win matches that will make them progress to the further stages of the tournament.

Despite a loss in its opening game of the tournament against Austria by 3–1, Macedonian fans and players alike believe that this team isn’t just at the tournament to make up the numbers, and that it can achieve much more.

“If they play with the enthusiasm with which they have been on the field for the last few months, then without being modest, I can say that I expect them to progress to the second phase and to become the underdogs who will be the biggest surprise of EURO 2020.” Skopje-based journalist Andrijana Jovanovska told Glavcom.

With a national team that consists of football legends such as Genoa’s 37-year-old talismanic striker Goran Pandev, and established and up-and-coming stars such as Leeds’ defender Ezgjan Alioski, Napoli’s midfielder Eljif Elmas, and Levante’s winger Enis Bardhi, many football fans in the country are optimistic about the future of Macedonian football and its national team.

Fittingly, it was the veteran captain Pandev who scored the winning goal against Georgia in the Nations League play-offs, and also North Macedonia’s first goal at a major tournament ever, in the 3–1 defeat against Austria.

In a career spanning for more than two decades, Pandev has played for the likes of Lazio and Napoli in the Italian Serie A, and had his biggest club success as being an integral part of the Jose Mourinho-managed Internazionale’s treble winning side of 2010.

“Certainly we haven’t lost out chances. We need to rest well now, and to prepare for Ukraine. Another difficult match awaits us. We need to play an open match and to win, because we have nothing to lose anymore.” Pandev said after the loss against Austria.

For many Macedonian fans, the match against Ukraine is now the pivotal game of the tournament which the team needs to win. And with Ukraine suffering a narrow defeat against the Netherlands by 3–2 in the opening match, it appears that the match against North Macedonia could prove to be crucial for going through to the second phase of the EURO 2020. The two teams have played against each before, in the EURO 2016 qualifiers, with Ukraine winning both games.

“The match between Macedonia and Ukraine will be difficult, and the points from that match will mean a lot for both teams. Ukraine is very experienced and their supporters will seek victory against Macedonia, but we won’t give up without a fight.” Trpkovski added.

For sports journalist Nikola Zdravkovic, the way that the Ukrainian team plays now also manifests the way that its coach and legend Andriy Shevchenko used to play in the past.

“The match with Ukraine will be perhaps the most important for Macedonia. After Andriy Shevchenko took the coaching chair, Ukraine looks like what its coach looked like as a player — powerful and with good goal scoring chances, that lurks in front of you from almost every attack.” Zdravkovic, who also hosts the country’s most popular football podcast called “GG3+”, told Glavcom.

“If we assume that the Netherlands is the favorite in the group and that they will play that role, the other battle will be fought between us, Ukraine and Austria.”

For 37-year-old Riste Karatanovski, both North Macedonia and Ukraine have the qualities to go through to the second phase of the tournament.

“I expect us to give it all on the football field, to play tactically well, attacking football, because we showed that we can do this. However, our match against Ukraine will depend a lot from the results from the first game, as well as Ukraine’s match against the Netherlands. I think that we’ll either win by a one goal margin, or it will be a draw. Probably, three of the teams — the Netherlands, Ukraine and Macedonia will go through.” Karatanovski told Glavcom.

Thirty-six-year-old Aleksandar Klashninovski from Skopje also made the long trip to Bucharest, to cheer and support the Macedonian football team. While he believes that Ukraine is currently a better side than North Macedonia, he also says that anything is possible in a one-off game.

“As a fan, I expect us to win, although Ukraine has a lot more quality than we do. However, it’s a one-off game, and we have a good atmosphere in the team, so I think that we also have a good chance of winning the game.” Klashninovski told Glavcom.

On the opposite side of Ukraine’s famed coach and football legend Andriy Shevchenko is North Macedonia’s manager, 45-year-old Igor Angelovski, praised by many in the country for achieving the turnaround that took North Macedonia to its first major tournament ever. Angelovski has been at the helm of the Macedonian national team for six years, nurturing a “never give up” attitude and encouraging players to have a fighting spirit against whichever opponent they face.

“We need to keep our heads up and move on, since there are two more matches. We are now starting to prepare for the next match, against Ukraine. I’ve lost words for the atmosphere created by our fans and I am sorry that we failed to award them a positive result. I hope we will make them happy in the next match.” Angelovski said after the Austria game.

For Jelena Milosavljevic, a fan from Skopje, winning against Ukraine now is the only option for the team to make it into the next round.

“I expect a win against Ukraine, although we also expected a win against Austria and we couldn’t do it. But because we don’t have a lot of options for the next two games, I hope that we can win both of them.” she told Glavcom.

Interestingly, what the two teams also have in common is that they both had to change their official kits before the start of the tournament. While for Ukraine it was the issue with the shirt slogans, for North Macedonia, it was a change in the design and the color of official jersey that upset and angered football fans.

Many in the country got upset when the country’s Football Federation chose a different shade of red for the official tournament kit, instead of the traditional red and yellow color kit, reflective of the country’s flag, which depicts a yellow sun on a red field. After a massive backlash from the public, North Macedonia’s Football Federation ultimately decided to bring back the old football kit.

Now, players from both countries will be wearing their officially approved jerseys when they meet on June 17 in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, hoping that a win will eventually take them to the next round of the tournament.

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