North Macedonia reached their first major tournament as an independent nation confident they could make the Euro 2020 knockout stages, but three straight group stage defeats have given the Balkan nation a harsh reality check. Having stunned Germany 2-1 away in a World Cup qualifier in March, the Macedonians likely raised their own expectations, with coach Igor Angelovski and key players stressing that they were not at the Euros just to make up the numbers. But although the former Yugoslav republic showed glimpses of the grit and entertaining football that had propelled them to the European Championship, they were ultimately unable to show much more than that.
Merely qualifying was an accomplishment for a nation of 2 million which has one of the most nondescript football pyramids in Europe, with outgoing captain Goran Pandev, who turns 38 next month, still their stand-out performer.
It is hard to see who can fill Pandev’s boots now. The forward had said before the 3-0 loss to the Netherlands, their final group match, that this would be his international swansong.
“Wearing this shirt for 20 years has been an honour and a privilege,” he said afterwards. “We played well but lacked experience, and I will remember this period for the rest of my life.”
“There is no room for a comeback. At the age of 38 playing on two fronts is a big ask,” he said, referring to his club career.
Fittingly, Pandev had steered the Macedonians to Euro 2020 with the winner in a 1-0 qualifying playoff final win over Georgia, and he netted their first goal of the tournament when he levelled in the opening 3-1 defeat by Austria.
North Macedonia showed plenty of fighting spirit in that game and a subsequent 2-1 loss to Ukraine, but it was clear for all to see that they lacked the kind of depth and quality needed to do well on the big stage.
The Macedonians looked at sea whenever the opposition came at them with purpose and were spared bigger defeats in the opening two games by goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski.
Their defensive frailties were exposed against a makeshift Dutch side who had already secured top spot in the group with wins over Ukraine and Austria, although North Macedonia again enjoyed several bright moments.
They were unlucky not to grab at least a consolation goal as Pandev dazzled his markers several times with flashes of brilliance before receiving a guard of honour from his team mates when he was substituted in the second half.
Having won two out of their opening three World Cup qualifiers, North Macedonia have a fair chance of progressing to next year’s tournament in Qatar to follow up on their biggest success to date.
First they must appoint a new head coach, however, as Angelovski told a news conference after the defeat by the Dutch that he would not carry on beyond July 31, when his contract with the Macedonian FA expires.
Pandev, though, said he was optimistic for the team. “I will now cheer for these lads from the bottom of my heart. I am confident they are capable of reaching the World Cup.”