The UEFA Euro 2020 will see North Macedonia make their international debut in a major tournament and the Balkan nation have the ability to cause a few upsets.
The UEFA Euro 2020 will see North Macedonia make their international debut in a major tournament. It is quite the turnaround for the side who, after years of missing out on qualification to either the Euros or the World Cup, now find themselves at the biggest stage in European international football. It’s been a journey that is anything but straightforward or easy. Yet the small Balkan nation will be mixing it up with Europe’s elite for the first time this year.
For the country once part of Yugoslavia, it will be a memorable year regardless of how their team fares. But, as we will explore in this article, they are not there merely to make up the numbers.
Amazing as it may sound, they might just turn a few heads and slay a giant or two in the tournament.
The country now known as North Macedonia was formed in 1991 after gaining independence from Yugoslavia. Their men’s national team, however, did not play a match a match under the name of Macedonia until 1994.
Their first game under that name was against Slovenia, which they won 4-1. But that match, rather than a sign of things to come, was more of a flash in the pan.
They missed out on qualification for major tournaments quite comfortably for the most part. Yet they also had the ability to spring a surprise result every now and then.
The Euro 1996 qualifiers saw them hold defending Euro champs Denmark to a 1-1 draw. The Euro 2000 qualifiers saw them hold Croatia to a 1-1 draw. Ironically, that result helped Yugoslavia qualify for the tournament.
Similarly, in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, they held England to a 2-2 draw at Southampton. What’s even more amazing is they took the lead twice in that game. Yet qualification continued to elude them.
In the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, they earned 2 draws against Netherlands. The Euro 2008 qualifiers saw them beat Croatia 2-0. They even recorded a 1-0 win over Scotland in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
At times, it felt like this would be their ceiling – the occasional win followed by inconsistency that failed to secure a berth in a major international tournament.
That was true even in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, arguably their best showing in any form of qualifiers. They started with a draw against Slovenia and a win over Latvia. Yet it wasn’t to be; a slew of poor results thereafter saw them finish third in the group.
It was an impressive showing but not enough to see them through to the tournament. But there was another way in.
A good showing in the inaugural UEFA Nations League – they won five games and drew just one of their Group D matches – saw them assured of a spot in the Euro 2020 playoffs.
The play-offs saw 16 teams who performed well in the Nations League be divided into four paths. Each path consisted of four teams, who contested a semi-final and a final. The winners of the final qualified for Euro 2020.
North Macedonia were drawn against Kosovo for the semi-final, who them beat 2-1. They then beat Georgia 1-0 in the final courtesy of a goal from veteran striker Goran Pandev.
Thus, the Macedonians will be part of Group C in the Euro 2020 alongside Netherlands, Austria and Ukraine. And while they might seem destined for a wooden spoon finish, they could find themselves as dark horse contenders for the knockouts.
The current format sees the Top 2 of each group as well as four of the best third-placed finishers from each group qualify for the Round of 16. This means a Top 2 finish isn’t needed to make it to the next round.
There’s also the fact that North Macedonia’s giant-killing instincts remain intact. In the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, they beat four-time champions Germany 2-1 in what can only be described as a shock.
Even one performance like this could be enough to get a third-place finish in Group C. It helps, perhaps, that they are not overly reliant on star players – although they do have a few noteworthy names in the squad.
Pandev is their skipper, but they also have Leeds United full-back Ezgjan Alioski, Napoli midfielder Elif Elmas and Stuttgart midfielder Darko Churlinov.
But perhaps more importantly, they possess the belief that they can cause an upset or two.
“We are a small nation playing big teams but we will not be overawed and we believe that we can advance from our group to the last 16,” Elmas told a news conference.
“We know what we have accomplished is great but no one should be content to just make up the numbers at the European Championship. The tournament has been the only thing on my mind for the last three months.”