In his 21-year senior career, Goran Pandev has seen it all.
For club he has anchored himself in Italy playing just two seasons outside of the boot, one in Turkey and one in his native North Macedonia. His service for country has defined his career, 38 goals in 121 games has awarded him the title of all-time top goalscorer. Monday night against the Netherlands will be a national leaving-do, one last celebration of the man born into a time of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.
On a night in June 2001, Goran Pandev made his international debut for Macedonia against Turkey. I can’t say I remember it well, I was only age three at the time, but even the fans within the ground surely couldn’t foresee that this man would be the embodiment of Macedonian football for the next 20 years.
The first six years of Pandev’s international career would result mostly in disappointment, no qualification to World Cup 2006 or Euro 2008 for the small nation. It was 2009 when Pandev found his best form for country, the tricky striker accumulated eight goals in 10 bringing him admirers across the continent including a certain Harry Redknapp who proved keen for the then Lazio striker to move to England.
The next decade provided further frustration, international tournaments continued to elude Pandev as Macedonia failed to secure qualifications to three World Cups and two European Championships in that time. This led him to consider international retirement in 2015, but recently appointed Igor Angelovski talked him out of it, probably the wisest managerial decision Angelovski has ever made. Last year fortunes changed for Pandev and North Macedonia. A dogged 1-0 win against Georgia sealed qualification to Euro 2020, the first major tournament for North Macedonia, with Pandev scoring the all important goal.
A nation hanging in the shadows of Yugoslavia had a new phenomenon to enjoy, an international tournament. Skopje was awash with red and yellow that evening, fans paraded the city delighted to have another sport to cheer on, adding to the nations surprising ability in both handball and basketball.
The Euros have proved a challenge for the lowest ranked side in the tournament, but they haven’t put in performances to suggest they’re there to make up the numbers. A 3-1 loss to Austria to open the tournament, a composed finish from Pandev in the penalty area had levelled the match before two late Austria goals. A sturdy team performance and goal from Leeds midfielder Ezgjan Alioski wasn’t enough for points against Ukraine but they have one final group stage showdown with the Netherlands on Monday evening.
While 2015 proved that Pandev can resurrect from retirement rumours, at 37 you would have to suspect this is it. Now with a goal at an international tournament as well as in a shock 2-1 against Germany back in March Pandev has managed to stick through to the golden era of North Macedonian football.
It is important to remember Macedonia and more recently North Macedonia have only been an international team for 27 years, of which Goran Pandev has played 21 of these. Growing up Pandev would have looked up to Yugoslavian players to find inspiration, Macedonians now don’t need to look further afield. With an international tournament under their belt and heroes of their own the Macedonian youth can look to figures like Pandev for inspiration. That will be the greatest legacy of Goran Pandev – hope and living proof playing for a small nation doesn’t define your footballing ability. The next generation of North Macedonian players have big boots to fill.