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Goran Pandev interview: "North Macedonia have made history to reach Euro 2020. That will stay with us forever"

Goran Pandev, Macedonia
(Image credit: Getty)

This interview with Goran Pandev first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!

At 37, Goran Pandev is considering the end. After 20 years with the likes of Lazio (opens in new tab), Inter (opens in new tab), Napoli (opens in new tab) and Genoa, the man who made his international debut in 2001 is finally serious about calling it quits. 

Before that, though, he’s got his eyes on one last major goal: making his country (opens in new tab) proud. The 2018/19 Nations League format carved out a spot at Euro 2020 for one League D team, a unique chance which North Macedonia seized in a heated play-off final against Georgia. The scorer of their only goal? It could only have been Pandev.

Winner of five Coppas Italia and a hero of Inter’s 2009/10 Treble, he’s recently been kept busier helping Genoa stay afloat at the other end of Serie A, having recently hit the 100-goal mark in Italy’s top flight. 

Now, though, it’s time to fulfil the dreams of a nation. After two decades of waiting, Pandev couldn’t be any more ready…

ALSO READ North Macedonia Euro 2020 squad and profile

What does it mean for your country to have qualified for Euro 2020?
We’ve made history and that will stay with us forever. When I first heard about the Nations League and how it would give one qualification spot to one of the League D teams, I saw it as a unique opportunity for Macedonia. Five years ago, we looked each other in the eyes and decided that we couldn’t miss out. We’ve got a good mix of experienced and young, talented players, a lot of whom have already played in an U21 European Championship in 2017. We’ve also got a very switched-on coach in Igor Angelovski, who has played such a big role in our development. He’s identified a core group of 20 players and relied on it for the past five years. We’ve developed into friends who want to show that change is possible and necessary. Our secret is the group.

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Talk us through that final against Georgia…
Over 10,000 Georgians were waiting for us outside the stadium when we arrived. The atmosphere in Tbilisi was tense, as they really wanted to qualify, too. Playing behind closed doors was an advantage for us – in my opinion, we were the better team and showed that. We knew we were going to win; we were so focused that we simply couldn’t fail. I remember my speech in the dressing room ahead of kick-off: I told my team-mates that this could be my final game for the national team. I’m delighted to have scored the goal that sent us through – for our country, it was like winning the Euros. It was so emotional. Now let’s see if we can have our say at the Euros, too.

Do you see the tournament as a chance to improve Macedonian football generally?
Definitely. There’s a lot of work to be done back home, because we’ve had some very tough times in the past. There was no true and central vision, and too many people wanted to take advantage. I even retired for two or three years because I just couldn’t stand how things were. But since Angelovski’s arrival, things have changed for the better – at least on the pitch. He visited me in Genoa and we had a real heart-to-heart. I told him my honest opinion and he told me his. He convinced me to return and we’ve achieved big things since. Unfortunately, we’re still missing a focus on the bigger picture. There are no plans of how to improve youth football, the stadiums are falling apart and our training facilities are nowhere near modern. 

How could the FA be more professional?
It’s more of a political entity than a sporting one, run by people who’ve never truly been involved in football. Unfortunately, it’s chaos. After we qualified for the Euros, executives kept part of the prize money for themselves. They said they’d played a part in qualifying, too. Can you believe that? That money should have been put into building pitches for children, buying equipment, developing youth sectors and keeping kids playing the game. We’ve got so much young talent, but most give up around the age of 15 due to the lack of organisation. The Euros represent a huge opportunity and we have to take it.

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Can you see yourself playing a more active role back in Macedonia eventually?
Some people have asked me to become president of our FA, but that’s not what I want. I’m already doing my part. In 2010, I founded the Akademija Pandev in Strumica, where I was born. It’s a football academy for 400 boys, with a state-of-the-art training centre and 60 rooms for residential players. We have two 3G pitches and one with real grass, as well as dressing rooms and a gym. The first team play top-tier football, and two years ago we won the Macedonian Cup and played in the Europa League qualifiers. I’ve invested my money to help our football, but it’s not something I can do on my own.

Could a successful Euro 2020 convince UEFA to keep a similar Nations League format for the future?
I like the Nations League format – I think it’s fair. In the World Cup qualifiers, we’re in the same group as Germany and Liechtenstein. I don’t want to offend anyone – we’ve been in that position for long enough ourselves – but what’s the point of those two facing each other? It’s a bit of a waste of time. In the Nations League you face teams at your own level, which leads to more interesting and even games. As far as Macedonia are concerned, we’ll have to see. Our success could support the causes of smaller nations, but it could also go the other way.

What are your expectations for the Euros? How can Macedonia surprise people?
We face Austria (opens in new tab) and Ukraine (opens in new tab) in our first two games and they won’t be easy. We’ll have to start strong. We believe in our chances, but have to keep both feet grounded. Having beaten Germany in World Cup qualifiers  at the end of March, expectations are high and people back home think we can beat anyone! Maybe a worse result against them would have been better for us. [Laughs] Our opponents will be wary, but we have to focus on us.

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So, about that win over Germany – their first World Cup qualifying defeat for almost 20 years. How significant was it?
We were scared, to be honest! We’d put in a great performance against Romania (opens in new tab) in our first game, but lost 3-2 after wasting so many chances, then beat Liechtenstein 5-0 at home. The Germany game was our third in a week and we thought we might be too tired to keep up. We prepared well, though, then had the luck we needed on the night for it to stay 0-0 and capitalise. As it turned out, they were tired too. Their players were all at big clubs and had been playing every three days for the whole season. Some of them congratulated us for the quality we’d shown, which was very nice of them.

How would Macedonia doing well at Euro 2020 compare to Inter winning the Champions League a decade ago?
I’m not sure you can really compare the two. I’ll never forget what we did at Inter – we really made history, winning the club’s first Champions League in 45 years. When we got back from Madrid, the streets were full of fans and flags. Jose Mourinho was so central to our success back then, like a father. We have a group chat called ‘The Treble’ with all of us in and he’s always so nice to everyone on there. That said, my family is in Macedonia. If we make it through the group stage, I’m sure the whole country will be out on the streets to welcome us home.

If you did well at the Euros, could that persuade you to carry on? Your coach at Genoa, Davide Ballardini, has said he’ll beat you up if you retire…
He’s a big guy! I’ll have to watch my back. [Laughs] My plan is to stop after the Euros, because I want to spend more time with my family. I have three children and don’t see them enough. It’s tough to say, though. Some nights I say to myself, ‘I’ve played in front of thousands of people for 20 years and now all I see are empty seats. It would be nice to say goodbye to the fans.’ We beat Germany, so maybe there’s a chance of qualifying for a World Cup, too. Then again, I think about the prospect of a training camp in Austria, all that running in the summer heat, and I’m no longer sure about what I want! Hey, I’m 37...  

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Daniele Verri is an Italian journalist who writes for FourFourTwo as well as a number of other titles around the world, including BBC Sport . He has interviewed a wide range of footballers for FourFourTwo, including North Macedonia's history maker Goran Pandev, former Roma and Italy striker Vincenzo Montella and Brazilian goalkeeper Dida.