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Euro legends: How Darko Pancev became a North Macedonian football icon

Darko Pancev
(Image credit: Getty)

Six appearances and one goal may not immediately mark out Darko Pancev as an international superstar, but it’s what the languid forward achieved elsewhere that made him North Macedonia’s leading light.

Born in the capital of Skopje, back when it was still part of Yugoslavia, Pancev shot to prominence by netting 248 league goals for local club Vardar and Red Star Belgrade in the 1980s and early ’90s, lifting the 1990/91 European Cup with Red Star.

The lethal forward led the Yugoslav line at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and then top-scored during Euro 92 qualifying with 10 goals, including hat-tricks against Austria and Northern Ireland. Alas, he never got to strut his stuff at the finals in Sweden.

With Yugoslavia descending into civil war due to political divisions among its many states, Pancev withdrew from the finals’ squad, citing injury issues – although it was rumoured to have been more to do with his political views. It soon proved academic anyway, as less than two weeks later, Yugoslavia were banned from taking part.

The fall of communism in Yugoslavia paved the way for Pancev to leave Red Star, and he wasn’t short of suitors, with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United interested, before he chose Inter. Things didn’t work out.

“There are strikers who don’t run and there are strikers who run,” he later recalled. “I was one of those strikers with a natural talent for scoring, and I ran only when I was within 30 metres of goal. Unfortunately, Inter didn’t want to accept that style of play.” Their loss.

Pancev also switched allegiances at international level, playing in Macedonia’s first official match against neighbours Slovenia in October 1993. The Cobra struggled to rediscover his goalscoring touch and netted only once for the country of his birth.

Yet he remains a legend among his countrymen and was awarded the Golden Player of Macedonia in 2003 as part of UEFA’s golden jubilee celebrations.

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