Italy's failure to reach yet another World Cup finals was headline news, but North Macedonia’s triumph and recent rise seems to have been brushed to one side. Now, they are just one match away from reaching the World Cup in Qatar as they face Portugal tonight.
The small European nation reached their first ever tournament last year at Euro 2020 and they gave a good account of themselves even though they lost all their group matches. The results were unfortunate but the determination from the players and the adoration of the supporters continued because they knew how special this historic tournament was.
The moment veteran striker Goran Pandev scored the nation’s first ever goal at a major tournament, you could see how much it meant to him, his teammates and the people of North Macedonia.
They may not have the most star-studded cast but everyone remembered Pandev from his peak years with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, and the other player that certainly English fans would remember was Ezgjan Alioski, the former Leeds United midfielder. He’s arguably one of manager Blagoja Milevski’s greatest assets because he can play in midfield, out wide, or as a left-back where he has predominantly played in recent years. To many, it seemed that North Macedonia were just going to be one of the nations that made it to the Euros and would just fade into the background after elimination, never to be seen on this stage again.
Yet, when you saw them play at the Euros and in the World Cup qualifiers, the fight that each player shows in and out of possession is enough to cause problems for some of the best teams. They know they are up against it from the referee’s first whistle so they know they need to put their opponents under pressure quickly and the quality of the opposition never fazes them, as their injury-time victory over Italy proved. That wasn’t their only shock on the way to the final as in qualifying Group J, they stunned Germany with a 2-1 victory in Duisburg, with Pandev opening the scoring that day.
Milevski’s side have fully merited getting into this position, a feeling shared by Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. The 37-year-old said: "The pressure is always there for us and we know it will be very difficult – North Macedonia are in this game because they deserve to be. They are really well organised and we will respect them, but if we play at our level then we can beat any side in the world."
Neutral supporters across the world will be rooting for North Macedonia as their fairytale continues. They have already gone and defeated two of the best teams in Europe, including the European champions and although they may have never faced Portugal in a competitive match before, they will feel that they can tick off beating another European giant and make an appearance at two consecutive international tournaments for the very first time.
The morale inside the North Macedonian camp is high and boss Milevski feels that his side can stun the former European champions. He said: “We won against one of the best teams in the world [Italy]. We won't stop here; we have one last step to get to the World Cup. We are well on our way to confirming why we are among the top 20 teams in Europe."
They’ve never made it to a World Cup as an independent nation, but tonight they could change all that. Nobody thinks they can beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s star-studded Portugal, but then again, nobody thought they could beat the European champions Italy. History beckons.
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