The People's Captain: Goran Pandev And His Pivotal Role In North Macedonia's Footballing Resurgence
Despite 119 international caps to his name, Goran Pandev has rarely experienced success with North Macedonia.
The North Macedonian record-holder for both appearances and goals, Pandev made his international debut back in 2001 during a 3-3 draw against Turkey in World Cup Qualifying. It took more than three years after that day for the center forward to win his first competitive fixture with his country — a 3-0 victory over Armenia.
Since then, victories have been few and far between. Pandev has won just 19 of his 70 World Cup and Euro qualifying appearances for North Macedonia, and the landlocked Balkan nation of just over two million inhabitants has never qualified for an international tournament.
In fact, North Macedonia had never even finished better than fourth in any of its qualifying groups nor had it won back-to-back qualifying fixtures.
That is, prior to Euro 2020.
Born at a time when North Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia, Pandev was nine years old when Macedonia (the country was known as Macedonia until 2019, when the name was changed to North Macedonia) played its first international fixture in 1993.
As a 16-year-old, Pandev made his debut for FK Belasica — the biggest club in his hometown of Strumica. But after just one season with Belasica, Pandev was plucked away by Inter Milan for a nominal fee. His move to Inter in the summer of 2001 also coincided with his first international appearance for Macedonia.
Pandev spent three seasons at Inter, but after two loan spells and no first team appearances, the North Macedonian was shipped off to Lazio in 2005. While in the Italian capital, Pandev enjoyed the best goal-scoring form of his career, reaching double-digit totals in three consecutive seasons.
After a long contract dispute, the North Macedonian striker soured the end of his Lazio tenure, Pandev returned to Inter Milan on a free transfer in the summer of 2010.
Pandev only appeared in about half of Inter's fixtures that season, but he was part of Jose Mourinho's historic side that won the first treble in Serie A history, taking home trophies in the Copa Italia, Serie A and the Champions League.
"Pandev has a fantastic left foot and a real goal-scoring instinct,” former Inter teammate Wesley Sneijder said recently. “I think he’s a wonderful player and what makes him special is he always has a vision of the game and can see the passing channels to send his teammates on goal."
"He’s also a great person, he loves football and in my view has been vastly underrated throughout his career. He’s ruthless in the box."
While never the most athletic player on the pitch, Pandev has a very clever footballing brain and a splendid left foot to go with it. He plays as a removed center forward, dropping back to receive the ball and acting more as a playmaker alongside a target striker.
He may not be the type of ruthless attacker that expects 20-goal seasons, but as Sneijder mentioned, he's an underrated finisher who, when given the chance, can put up dependable goal-scoring totals.
Pandev is also adept at making forward runs from these deeper positions, a maneuver he used to score a pair of first half goals against defending European champions Spain in a 2009 friendly.
Spain came back to win 3-2, but Pandev was the most influential player on the pitch as he nearly led Macedonia to a famous victory.
At the club level though, Pandev was struggling to become a regular starter under Jose Mourinho. The attacker was loaned out to Napoli in 2011, and the move was made permanent the next summer.
His Napoli years brought the most productive assisting period of his career, as Pandev accumulated 17 assists across three seasons while playing alongside the prolific Edinson Cavani. He also led Gli Azzurri to a pair of Copa Italia trophies and three top-five finishes in Serie A.
After three seasons in Naples, 31-year-old Pandev moved to Turkish club Galatasaray in 2014 on a free transfer. Pandev struggled at Galatasaray, and he was mainly used as a cup player. For most players north of 30, a season with just four league appearances is a sign to hang up the boots.
But Pandev decided to return to Italy, and proceeded to have some of the better seasons of his career. He joined Serie A side Genoa prior to the 2015/16 campaign, and he has stayed with Il Grifone ever since.
The North Macedonian attacker has 16 Serie A goals over the past two seasons for Genoa — his best two-season total in more than a decade. One of his best performances during this stretch came in a 2-1 victory over Napoli in Feb. 2021.
Pandev opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a calm left-footed finish after profiting from some clever Genoa counter-pressing. But his second goal exemplified the prowess Pandev still brought to the pitch at the age of 37.
Playing in his preferred second striker role, Pandev dropped back to off a pass to strike partner Mattia Destro. Destro had the ball poked away under pressure toward Pandev, and instead of controlling the ball, Pandev let the ball run through his leg toward teammate Milan Badelj.
Before the ball even reached Badelj, Pandev was already making a run toward goal, penetrating the space left by the defender that pressured Desto. Badelj fed Pandev through with an accurate ball, and from then on it was the Goran Pandev show.
The North Macedonian spun and controlled the ball all in one touch, and with just the keeper to beat, Pandev slotted the ball home off the inside of the post.
Then, in April of 2021 Pandev reached arguably the greatest individual achievement of his club career.
With a brace against Benevento, Pandev reached the 100-goal mark in his Serie A career — becoming the first North Macedonian to reach the century plateau in one of the "Big 5" European leagues. He ended the season with his highest goals+assists per 90 minutes since 13/14.
While Pandev has played in Italy for the better part of 20 seasons, his initial success in Serie A came at a time when a few Macedonians had played in Western Europe — including Darko Pančev (European Champion and golden boot winner with Red Star Belgrade in 1991), who made 19 appearances for Inter Milan in the mid 1990's — but none of them achieved extended success.
No wonder he is "worshipped" by his fellow countrymen. In 2009, he even received a Medal for Service to the Country from the Macedonia president for his contribution to popularizing football in the country and promoting the country abroad.
Pandev's exploits have paved the way for many of his countrymen: Eljif Elmas at Napoli, Ezgjan Alioski at Leeds and Enis Bardhi with Levante in Spain, among others, who have all enjoyed extended tenures in some of Europe's biggest leagues.
Along with Pandev, this trio of players has formed the core of the North Macedonia side that has reached one of its highest FIFA World Rankings ever.
Prior to the Euro 2020 qualification cycle, North Macedonia already knew that it had secured a Euro playoff bid thanks to its performances in the inagural UEFA Nations League in 2018.
Placed in League D, North Macedonia won its qualifying group by grabbing five victories from its six matches to earn promotion to League C.
In a qualifying group with a pair of top-25 teams in Poland and Austria, North Macedonia earned 14 points from 10 matches to finish a respectable third. This included home victories against Slovenia and Israel and a sweep of Latvia, as Pandev won back-to-back qualifying fixtures for the first time with his country.
The third place finish represented North Macedonia's best ever qualifying campaign, and while it wasn't enough for qualification, the team was already in the Euro playoffs through its Nations League triumphs.
After Pandev captained North Macedonia to a semifinal victory of Kosovo, the country was 90 minutes away from its first ever international tournament.
Its opponent for the final was Georgia, a side it had drawn twice in the previous two months in a pair of feisty Nations League matches that both featured a sending off.
The match in Tbilisi was once again very tense, and neither side fashioned many scoring opportunities. But after 45 scoreless minutes it was the visitors who took the lead early in the second half, and it was none other than Pandev that put the ball in the back of the net.
Receiving a pass with his back to goal in the penalty area, Pandev played a neat one-touch layoff to his teammate. After a quick squared pass, Pandev, who had gotten his body in between his defender in the goal, made a horizontal run across the back of the defensive line. He was played in by strike partner Ilija Nestorovski, and, after taking one touch to settle, poked the ball past the Georgian keeper at close range.
Pandev's finish was the only goal in the match, and North Macedonia was through to the European Championship.
"For all of us, it’s a dream come true we’re at the Euros," Pandev said afterward. "I just wanted to help the guys because this is a young group, an amazing group and the guys deserve it."
As for his match-winning goal: "That is my dearest goal because finally we qualified for a major tournament."
Riding off the high of Euro qualification, North Macedonia's good form continued into the spring for World Cup Qualifying. After a narrow defeat to Romania in the opening match, the team responded with a 5-0 victory against Liechtenstein, its biggest victory in nearly 20 years.
Then came a visit to Germany. While the Germans weren't the unstoppable force they had been in previous years (a 6-0 defeat to Spain a few months prior emphasized this), they were still the overwhelming favorites to win the group.
North Macedonia was unphased. Germany dominated possession and fashioned a handful of great chances early, including a shot off the crossbar, but it was North Macedonia that broke the deadlock on the stroke of halftime — through none other than Pandev.
Two German defenders failed to deal with an over-hit cross that reached Macedonian midfielder Enis Bardhi. Bardhi sent a speculative shot/cross across the face of goal, which found the wide open Pandev at the edge of the six, and the striker had an easy tap-in.
Germany drew level through a second half penalty, and in the latter stages of the half, North Macedonia had its own penalty claims denied while Timo Werner missed a golden chance for the hosts.
In the 85th minute, Werner would come to rue his miss. Some good off the ball movement allowed Arijan Ademi to latch onto a through ball in the penalty area, and after dribbling toward the endline, he found Eljif Elmas with a low cross, who side-footed home the winner.
While the victory over Georgia was more meaningful, the upset of Germany is the single biggest result in the history of Macedonian football.
When Pandev retired from the national team in 2014, North Macedonia dropped to 162nd in the FIFA World Rankings, its worst-ever showing. Pandev was persuaded to return to the international circuit in 2016, and since then, the side has jumped 100 places in the rankings, and at 62nd, the country has its highest ranking in more than a decade.
Of course, this improvement is not only due to Pandev; there are numerous Macedonia footballers playing in some of the best leagues in Europe. But how many of them would be in say Spain or Italy if not for Pandev?
There were many talented Macedonian players beforehand, but few moved to Western Europe to play their club football, and none of them stayed there for more than a season or two.
Pandev was the first Macedonian to make a career in Western European football, competing against the top players in the world week in and week out for nearly 20 years (and counting).
Now, North Macedonia's best talents are playing in England, Italy and Spain, and competing in the Champions League.
At age 37, Goran Pandev may not be the best player on the pitch for North Macedonia anymore, but with the high level talent around him, the country's most famous player doesn't need to be.
North Macedonia has a manageable Euro 2020 group: it opens with Austria, then Ukraine, and finally the Netherlands. Austria and Ukraine are ranked 23rd and 24th in the world, respectively, but neither side has been in the best form as of late.
Austria was demolished 4-0 by Denmark in WCQ in March, while Ukraine had embarrassing draws against Kazakhstan and Bahrain in recent months. The Dutch, ranked 16th are also beatable, with a draw to Scotland and a defeat to Turkey in 2021.
Pandev has captained North Macedonia to its first ever international tournament — which for many would be enough. But this is the best Macedonian side in a long time, maybe ever, and with the great form the team has ridden over the past few years, expect North Macedonia to make its mark come tournament time.