SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Normally overshadowed by the sporting success of Croatia and Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic of North Macedonia is one game away from making its mark in international soccer.
The small Balkan country will play Georgia on Thursday with a chance to qualify for the European Championship for the first time, nearly three decades after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“We know who we’re up against, and we know what we are playing for,” North Macedonia coach Igor Angelovski said. “We must have maximum concentration and maximum motivation.”
Yugoslavia was a soccer power in its day, twice finishing runner-up at the European Championship and twice reaching the semifinals at the World Cup.
Since the breakup, Croatia has had the most success of the former republics, first reaching the World Cup semifinals in 1998 in its debut at the tournament, and then making it to the final in Russia two years ago.
Croatia has already qualified for Euro 2020, which was postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Serbia also has a chance to qualify through the playoffs on Thursday, facing Scotland.
North Macedonia will travel to Tbilisi to face Georgia at Dinamo Arena, but the team will be without goalkeeper Daniel Bozinovski, who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Defensive midfielder Arian Ademi, who plays for Dinamo Zagreb, is also questionable because of an injury he sustained during a warm-up match.
Nearly everyone in the squad plays abroad, including 37-year-old captain Goran Pandev. The Genoa forward is likely facing his last chance to represent his country in a major tournament.
“This is the most important match in the history of the Macedonian soccer,” said striker Ilija Nestorovski, who plays for Italian club Udinese. “As a national team, we must be prepared. It’s time.”
Associated Press writers Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.
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