North Macedonia is one of two nations making their Euros debut this summer and the country has had to wait an extra 12 months, thanks to the coronavirus delay, to make their international bow. This is the first Euros the North Macedonians have reached since they were part of former Yugoslavia team that reached two finals in the 1960s.
Persistent qualifying failures between 1996 and 2016 showed little sign of change, until the 2020 qualifying competition saw North Macedonia battle through the playoffs to secure their place at the Euros. North Macedonia beat Kosovo in their playoff semi-final and edged Georgia 1-0 in the final to progress. They had finished third in qualifying Group G behind both Austria and Poland, and only advanced to the playoffs via their Nations League success.
Since then, North Macedonia have continued to impress and come into the Euros having recently beaten Germany in World Cup qualifying. They may be the underdogs in Group C this summer, but head coach Igor Angelovski certainly knows how to squeeze every ounce of effort out of his players. The boss prefers a malleable 5-3-2 system in which three centre-backs provide the bedrock to the team. Wing-backs Ezgjan Alioski and Boban Nikolov bomb up the wings to provide support for the three-man midfield, where Enis Bardhi, Elif Elmas and Arjan Ademi look to take control. Up front the 37-year-old captain Goran Pandev is usually supported by Mallorca forward Aleksandar Trajkovski.
North Macedonia will hope their underdog status helps them this summer – much like how Iceland stunned the likes of England, Portugal and Austria in 2016. The two opening Macedonia Euro games will be played in Bucharest against Austria and Ukraine, before a trip to Amsterdam for a clash with Group C favourites Netherlands.
While they are not expected to win the Euros, North Macedonia could be the surprise team of the summer. Their strength – as shown in the recent 2-1 win over Germany – comes from their unity in the middle of the park. Angelovski likes to congest things and force the game out wide, where he knows the likes of Alioski and Stefan Ristovski can get forward with speed.
Of course, the team lacks the superstar quality found in the best Euros teams, and because of this they are predicted to either fall in the group stage or at the round-of-16. Finishing third in Group C would likely put North Macedonia up against Spain, Germany or France, which is surely where their glorious journey finally ends.
Goran Pandev (c)