The journey of a new nation

North Macedonia, officially the Republic of North Macedonia, is a country in Southeast Europe. It gained independence in 1991 as one of the successor states of Yugoslavia.

North Macedonia is a landlocked country bordering Kosovo to the northwest, Serbia to the north, Bulgaria to the east, Greece to the south, and Albania to the west.

It constitutes approximately the northern third of the larger geographical region of Macedonia. Skopje, the capital and largest city, is home to a quarter of the country’s 2.06-million population.

The majority of the residents are ethnic Macedonians, a South Slavic people.

Albanians form a significant minority at around 25%, followed by Turks, Romani, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Aromanians.

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The history of the region begins with the kingdom of Paeonia, a mixed Thraco-Illyrian polity.

In the late sixth century BC, the area was subjugated by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, then incorporated into the kingdom of Macedonia in the fourth century BC. The Romans conquered the region in the second century BC and made it part of the larger province of Macedonia. The area remained part of the Byzantine Empire but was often raided and settled by Slavic tribes beginning in the sixth century of the Christian era.

Following centuries of contention between the Bulgarian, Byzantine, and Serbian Empire, it was part of the Ottoman dominion from the mid-14th until the early 20th century, when, following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, the modern territory of North Macedonia came under Serbian rule.

During the First World War, it was ruled by Bulgaria, but after the end of the war, it returned to being under Serbian rule as part of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. During the Second World War, it was ruled by Bulgaria again and in 1945 it was established as a constituent state of communist Yugoslavia, which it remained until its peaceful secession in 1991.

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The country became a member of the United Nations in April 1993, but as a result of a dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia, it was admitted under the provisional description “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia!”

In June 2018, Macedonia and Greece resolved the dispute with an agreement that the country should rename itself “Republic of North Macedonia.”

This renaming came into effect in February 2019.

A unitary parliamentary constitutional republic, North Macedonia is a member of the UN, NATO, Council of Europe, World Bank, OSCE, CEFTA, and the WTO. Since 2005, it has also been a candidate for joining the European Union. North Macedonia is an upper-middle-income country and has undergone considerable economic reform since independence in developing an open economy.

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North Macedonia is a developing country, ranking 82nd on the Human Development Index, and provides social security, a universal health care system, and free primary and secondary education to its citizens.

The progress of North Macedonia as a nation has been encouraging and in football, they have created history by securing a place in the Euro 2020 (2021).

Football in North Macedonia

The beginnings of football in North Macedonia date back to the early 20th century.

Actually, the first match was played in Skopje on April 20, 1919.

It was the selection of the English army composed of the best players among the recruits, against Napredok of Skopje, Napredok would win the match by the score of 2-0. At that place in token of remembrance of the contest, was erected a monument in the form of a soccer ball weighing about 250 pounds, because it was the first official soccer match played on the territory of North Macedonia.

The monument was erected in 1979, to mark the anniversary of 70 years since the start of football in North Macedonia.

Since 1909, many clubs have been formed.

Prior to the First World War, the region had become part of the Kingdom of Serbia and, as such, became part in 1918 of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – renamed to Yugoslavia in 1929.

Lujoboten Tetovo - The oldest Football Club in North Macedonia. Image Courtesy: Club of Pioneers
Lujoboten Tetovo – The oldest Football Club in North Macedonia. Image Courtesy: Club of Pioneers

Since 1918, the clubs from the current territory of the Republic of North Macedonia had competed in the Yugoslav league system. First, they were part of the Belgrade Football Subassociation (1913–1927), and later, in 1927, a separate Skoplje Football Subassociation was formed.

The creation of the later made it considerably easier for Macedonian clubs to access Yugoslav First League since the Subassocion leagues functioned as qualifying leagues for the Yugoslav national championship and they avoided the clubs from Belgrade. Gragjanski Skopje became a usual participant during the late 1930s in the Yugoslav top tier. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the league system was changed, and Macedonian clubs competed within the Serbian league.

In 1941, with the Second World War already on way, most of the region of Vardarska Banovina was incorporated into Bulgaria.

The football leagues and clubs were restructured and incorporated into the Bulgarian league system. The strongest Macedonian clubs competed in the Bulgarian League (1941–1945).

FK Ljuboten has always united Macedonians, Albanians and other ethnic groups living in Tetovo and the wider region. Image Courtesy: Old Football Pictures
FK Ljuboten has always united Macedonians, Albanians, and other ethnic groups living in Tetovo and the wider region. Image Courtesy: Old Football Pictures

During the Second World War, the selection of Macedonian clubs played against the selection of the German army and played matches against Bulgaria. During this period several Macedonian players were selected and played for the Bulgarian national team.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the region was reincorporated into Yugoslavia, and SR Macedonia was established as one of the 6 constituent socialist republics of SFR Yugoslavia. The best Macedonian clubs usually competed in the Federal leagues, First and Second Yugoslav leagues, while the Macedonian Republic League was formed to serve as a qualifying league for the federal ones.

In 1945, after the Second World War, a section of the Association of Sports in Skopje with Gustav Vlahov as president was created.

Finally, on August 14, 1949, the Macedonian Football Association was formed and was part of the Football Association of Yugoslavia until 1991, when North Macedonia declared independence. The first president of the Football Federation of Macedonia was Ljubisav Ivanov – Dzingo.

Ljubisav Ivanov. Image Courtesy: Scoop Macedonia
Ljubisav Ivanov. Image Courtesy: Scoop Macedonia

The best Macedonian players were part of the Yugoslav national team.

North Macedonia national football team represents North Macedonia in international football, and it’s controlled by the Football Federation of Macedonia.

In the period between 1945 and 1991, SR Macedonia was ineligible to play as a team for official matches. The team had mostly played exhibition matches against teams from other republics of SFRJ and was represented by Macedonian players under the traditional red, yellow and white colors.

The North Macedonia Football Team – the journey starts

After independence, Macedonia became a single member of FIFA and UEFA in 1994.

The national team began its football journey with a 4–1 victory against Slovenia in a friendly on October 13, 1993, under coach Andon Doncevski.

They went on to win their next two friendlies against Slovenia and Estonia.

The inaugural Macedonian side featured Darko Pancev, who played for Inter Milan in Italy.

The Euro 96 Qualifiers was the first major qualifying tournament that Macedonia participated in as an independent nation and they were grouped with Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Cyprus, and Armenia. In their opening game, which was also their first-ever official match, Macedonia was drawn against the reigning European Champions Denmark.

The game was played in Skopje on 7 September 1994 and it finished 1–1 with Macedonia leading for most of the game after scoring in the fourth minute.

In this qualifying stage, Macedonia suffered one of its worst defeats when they lost 0–5 to Belgium at home on 7 June 1995.

They failed to qualify for Euro 96, finishing fourth in the group with seven points.

Macedonia’s first qualifying attempt for the World Cup began in 1996 and it was a failure.

Since then, they became a jolly-bash for the big teams in Europe.

But, those were a big learning curve for the newly independent nation.

The era of Srecko Katanec

In 2006 former Slovenian national team coach Srecko Katanec was appointed as the head coach and was given a two-year contract. Katanec started to change the mentality of the team as prior to the build-up for the Euro Qualifiers, 2008, Macedonia beat Ecuador and Turkey in the friendlies.

During the qualifiers, they beat Estonia in an away game.

Goce Sedloski scored for Macedonia in the 73rd minute, which meant that Macedonia was the first team to score a goal in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Macedonia hosted England in September 2006 in their second game of the qualifiers.

England went on to win 0–1 after Peter Crouch scored for the away side in the 46th minute.

This was the first time that Macedonia failed to score against England.

A month later, in October, the two teams met once again in Manchester, where England was held to a 0–0 draw in front of 72,062 people.

Macedonia then recorded one of their most impressive wins to date when they picked up a 2–0 victory over eventual group winners Croatia in 2007, causing the biggest upset of Group A; it was also a first win for Macedonia over a side that was ranked in the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings.

Despite some surprising results, Macedonia once again failed to qualify for the Euro 2008 Finals after finishing fifth in the group with 14 points.

The improvement was evident and during the build-up to the World Cup 2010 Qualifiers, Macedonia played three friendlies against Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, and Poland, which all ended in draws.

Macedonia opened their campaign with a 1–0 home win against Scotland on 6 September 2008 when Ilco Naumoski scored on a rebound after a well-taken free-kick by Goce Sedloski. Following these impressive results, Macedonia moved up 10 places to 46 in the FIFA World Rankings list for October 2008 which was their highest ever position on the rankings list.

Srecko Katanec left the team following a 4–0 loss to the Netherlands in Amsterdam in 2009 for allegedly getting into an argument with star player Goran Pandev.

The exit of Katanec halts the progress

Soon afterward, the manager of the under-21 squad, Mirsad Jonuz, became the new coach of the Macedonian senior team and was signed until the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Macedonia lost 2–0 to Scotland and then suffered another loss to Norway, which meant that Macedonia once again did not qualify for the World Cup.

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The manager Mirsad Jonuz was dismissed on 18 June 2011 and replaced by John Toshack, who led Macedonia in the last four matches to one win, one draw, and two losses in the Euro Qualifiers, 2012.

During the World Cup Qualifiers, 2014, things started to fell apart – the campaign was a disaster.

After the unsuccessful qualification run, Goran Pandev, Nikolce Noveski, Velice Sumulikoski, and others would retire from the national team due to turbulent relations with the Football Federation of Macedonia.

In November 2013, Bosko Gjurovski would be appointed the new national team manager.

The Qualifiers for the Euro 2016 remained unsatisfactory and more changes came.

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In October 2015, Drulovic left the national team to join the Serbian club Partizan and the managerial post was taken over by the former manager of Rabotnicki, and former assistant coach of the national team Igor Angelovski.

In the same month, the Macedonian football superstar Goran Pandev came back to the national team after two years of absence.

Nothing significant happened during the World Cup Qualifiers, 2018, except recording their first victory in the qualifying against Liechtenstein.

UEFA Nations League – the platform to change fortune and create history

UEFA kicked off the UEFA Nations League and North Macedonia took the competition seriously and discovered it as the platform to lift up their spirit and polish their skills despite many top teams and critics complaining about the tournament, which is making the football schedule quite hectic.

But for teams like Macedonia, it came as a blessing.

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They were victorious in League D and got promoted to League C – Macedonia was drawn in Group 2 together with Armenia, Estonia, and Georgia.

However, having successfully been taken first place in the UEFA Nations League earlier, North Macedonia was able to reach the country’s first-ever competitive playoff in history and was scheduled against Kosovo.

Kosovo, a country of 1.8-million people which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was accepted as a member of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, and then FIFA, in 2016 after a long campaign.

North Macedonia manager Igor Angelovski celebrates after the Euro 2020 playoff semi-final against Kosovo in Skopje. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA
North Macedonia manager Igor Angelovski celebrates after the Euro 2020 playoff semi-final against Kosovo in Skopje. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA

They enjoyed a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run in 2018-19 to win their Nations League group and qualify for the playoffs, which offer a back door to the European Championship.

But, North Macedonia overcame Balkan neighbours Kosovo 2-1 and will visit Georgia, who beat Belarus 1-0 thanks to an early Tornike Okriashvili penalty, with the winners of their playoff set for a maiden major tournament as an independent nation.

There were joyous scenes in Skopje, where North Macedonia edged Kosovo in an emotionally charged encounter, with home coach Angelovski rushing onto the field with a Macedonian flag after the final whistle.

The victory against Kosovo increased the chance to make a historic Euro debut when they faced Georgia in the final of Path D’s play-offs.

Ultimately, history has been created.

North Macedonia qualified for their first-ever major tournament appearance, after a 1-0 away win over Georgia in Tbilisi.

Goran Pandev, his nation’s most capped player, and all-time leading scorer, flicked the ball home in the 56th minute of a tense, scrappy match played on a slippery pitch. The 37-year-old was in tears at the final whistle as his team celebrated a dream qualification.

With so much at stake, the match was predictably cagey and it took 28 minutes before either goalkeeper had to make a save when Georgian playmaker Tornike Okriashvili tested Stole Dimitrievski with a long-range shot.

Okriashvili also sent a shot swerving narrowly wide of the post as Georgia threatened to take control.

There were 29 fouls in a stop-start match and only four shots on target but the neatly-worked winning goal was in contrast to the rest of the game.

Eljif Elmas broke down the left and slipped the ball to Ilija Nestorovski. His pass found Pandev who flicked the ball past Giorgi Loria for his 36th international goal.

Georgia could not recover from that setback, and the visitors had only one real scare when an intended cross by Okriashvili nearly flew into the top corner. Dimitrievski caught it under the bar and just managed to cling on.

North Macedonia will face Austria, the Netherlands, and Ukraine in Group C at Euro 2020, which has been postponed until June-July next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We will play for our nation’s pride in the finals,” said Angelovski. “Pandev scored a beautiful goal to take us through.”

“I am so happy. I have played in a lot of games like this before and I think my experience helped the team to achieve this success,” said Pandev.

North Macedonia qualified by what some regard as the back door, via the fourth division of UEFA’s inaugural Nations League competition, but that cannot undermine the spirit this small nation showed.

All those setbacks, humiliations, hard work, and learning from mistakes have finally paid off!

Note: Information gathered from Wikipedia, the Guardian, and Irish Times