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Macedonia: The "Almost" Nation

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MacedoniaMacedoniaIf you asked any footballing pundit in the mid 90's after the break-up of Yugoslavia which one of the newly formed nations would go on and be competitive on the football pitch, the answer no doubt would've been both Serbia and Croatia. However, there would've been a tasty question mark besides the small landlocked nation of Macedonia.

An opinion piece By Erik Bickford

But 15 years on, both the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes have qualified and competed in both the World Cups and Euro Championships. The Montenegrins, now recently secceeded, have proven that only with a handful of games, that they too may emulate these feats.

This leads me to the Macedonian national team...

And boy oh boy, where does one start?

If there has ever been a footballing nation, to be labelled "under-achievers", this would have to be one of the top 5.

The Croats and Serbs have a knack of exporting players across the globe, look at every major league in Europe, and I bet my last dollar that their is a Serb, or a Croat, or usually vast numbers of both playing regular first team football in that league, Are their players on average a better quality than that of the Macedonians? Barring a few  notables, I'd say not really.

The continual under achievement of this proud nations footballers beggars belief, and analysis of some of their major players over the past 15 years says a lot. Lets take a no holding back, blunt look at some of the big names.

Goce Sedloski: A big solid mountain of a man, In his early days at Hajduk, he made such a name for himself that Ron Atkinson himself named him the Tony Adams of the Balkans. A move to Sheffield Wednesday, then an EPL team transpired. The beginning of an era in top flight football beckoned? After some average performances, he moved back to the Croatian League, and then to the relatively new, and un-impressive J-League. Back to Croatia again, and now at Mattersburg in Austria. Obscurity has settled in. Goce has some seriously outstanding qualities, yet continually makes bad career moves. His club selection has no doubt stunted his ability to improve.

Toni Micevski: A talented midfielder in his day, and after solid performances in the Macedonian league, a move to Germany where he undoubtedly had the potential to be a decade long Bundesliga footballer. Bad career decisions, poor fitness and perhaps an attitude of mediocrity stunted what was undoubtedly a career full of potential.

Toni Saveski: Probably the most under-rated player in Macedonian football. A legend in Greece. Countless breathtaking performances for AEK Athens. Yet strangely under utilised, if at all selected by the Macedonian national team.

Darko Pancev: Maybe the most famous of all? Deadly strike rate for Red Star Belgrade when they climbed the Everest of football. Post 1991 a rapid decline to obscurity. Cameo appearances for dreadfull teams like Fortuna Düsseldorf and the Swiss team FC Sion. He will forever grasp onto his achievements at Belgrade, and so he should, because the rest of his promising career was equitable to that of a Division 2 footballer.

Artim Sakiri: A maestro at times. Touch, speed, awareness and talent. Apart from his early years at Vardar, he never spent more than 2 seasons at any 1 club. A Dollar chaser who believed that his worth was equitable to his "perceived" talent. Unfortunately, he never focused enough nor was motivated to make a go of it to prove himself right. 14 clubs in 12 years, tells me that their is a big chip on his shoulder. You cant develop into a valuable footballer with that record, although his frequent flyer credit points would be world class.

Velice Sumulikoski: Probably one of the most focused from the lot. He bided his time at Zenit, moved to Turkey to get regular games under his belt, and was rewarded by a positive move to Ipswich in the English Championship. At 27 years of age I believe an EPL or other top flight club beckons. A true professional.

Goran Pandev: Again, bracket him in with Velice. Promising talent, a move to Inter when he was 15 and the world at his feet. He struggled to show his worth at Inter and a loan spell to Ancona & Spezia in the Serie B followed. At this point 99% of footballers would've began their 10 club career in questionable leagues? But he focused on what he wanted, listened, improved and never waivered. Not a money hungry shark, he signed as an unknown for Lazio for a miniscule fee, and has developed on the talent that most of this list had and become arguably one of the worlds top 50 footballers. A role model to all aspiring footballers, not just Macedonians.

Aco Stojkov: Travelled with Goran to Inter as a teenager, Obviously had talent, yet when the same scenario posed itself as with Goran, he took the other path. Possibly believing he was better than what everyone thought, with no patience or strong will to stick it out & learn his craft he elected to go down the 10 club career path. At 25 years of age, he is already at his 8th club. A player who will certainly crack the illusive 15 club career if he carries on this path and injury doesn't settle in.

Ilco Naumoski: Another 25 year old who has unfairly been tortured with cruel and unlucky injuries. His mental ability, to stick it out and fight for his position has made him a goal machine in the Austrian League. It's no surprise that Reading and Boro have been sniffing around, and unfortunate that injuries have stunted his progress. But, at 25 he has many seasons left, and if he continues his level headed and humble approach, his time will come.

Gjorgji Hristov: 11 clubs in 14 years. At Partizan was establishing himself as a class young striker. Followed the Sedloski path and scored a brilliant move to EPL team Barnsley FC. Totally under utilised by Danny Wilson and ultimately let the EPL status get to his head. In my opinion, suffered an elitist mentality and during the prime of his career was victim to serious knee injuries.

Mile Krstev: As a 19 year old was taken by Heerenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie. Showed terrific maturity, yet was hardly rewarded with any national team caps. Slowly fizzled out and by his mid 20's was being loaned out to whichever Eerste Divisie team would take him. Now back in the Macedonian league, he could pass on his experience to young men coming through and instill the "don't take it for granted" attitude that perhaps he fell victim to?

Goran Maznov: The 27 year old striker from Strumica seems to have found his feet at Tom' Tomsk. After a whirlwind journey that included transfers to Spartak Moscow and Lokeren he has settled in the Russian league and developed a reputation as a solid goal scorer. Still under utilised coming off the bench predominantly, however slowly breaking into regular first team national team squads.

Stevica Ristić: Elected the option of playing in the Far East, and is blitzing the Korean defenders and some of Asia's best in the ACL. With only 6 caps to his name, one is left wondering what on earth is going on with his non selection in the national team.

Igor Mitreski: As a 22 year old was signed by Spartak Moscow. A regular first teamer with the Russian powerhouse, and by the age of 25 was on Bayern München's wishlist. Perhaps in frustration settled for a move to the Romanian first division then ultimtley signed to the Israeli league. In 2006 signed for Energgie Cottbus and now loaned to Beerschot of Belgium. Seems to have had bags of quality, but again, poor career moves have made his progress as a footballer too volatile to be considered as a success, even though he would've made a small fortune by the time he hangs his boots up.

Aleksandar Vasoski: A strong domestic career in Macedonia, followed by a move to then 2.Bundesliga team Eintracht Frankfurt. Now in the 1.Bundesliga, has had a strong career and even at 29 getting better every season. A level headed footballer, getting the best out of himself through hard work and professionalism.

Nikolce Noveski: The 29 year old Bitola born took a punt and signed for Erzgebirge Aue in 2001. A 3.Bundesliga team who battled up to the 2nd tier by 2004. It was then he was spotted by Mainz in the 1.Bundesliga, he transferred to them and over the following 3 seasons was week in week out, one of the best defenders in the league. Strangely when they were relegated he elected to stay with them even though he was fielding terrific offers from better clubs across Europe. The decision to stay has cost him the experience of regulary taking on Europes best strikers, and no doubt will effect his play.

Goran Popov: After having a promising start to his career by being on the books of both Red Star Belgrade & AEK Athens he transferred to Polish Ekstraklassa team Odra Wodzisław. An unhappy stint followed by the transfers to lowly Egaleo FC and Levadiakos FC in the Greek leagues. At only 24, and with talent on his side, he has now signed for Dutch side Heerenveen. Lets hope he sticks it out and becomes a regular in this league and dosnt start club hopping which will ultimately be his demise.

Lessons To Learn:

Ivan Trickovski: Talented, young and a bright prospect. Lets hope his run at Red Star Belgrade leads him to a bigger European club where he can develop into a strong forward. Only time will tell with Ivan.

Filip Ivanovski: This kid will become a superstar. Already being hailed as one of the best imports in the Polish League, his ability to both score goals and assist them has many clubs clamouring for his signature. Of late, Werder Bremen, Hull City and Zenit St Petersburg have all cast their eye over him, however it will be within the next two seasons which will define his career. Great attitude and terrific work ethic makes for a promising career.

Goran Slavkovski: The "golden boy" of Sweden, oops I mean Macedonia, or was it Croatia for a while? Goran has obvious ability, During his last season at Inter he became the youngest player to come on the field for the Milan giants since Giuseppe Bergomi. However issues with his reserves coach limited him to the bench and made an unhappy time for him at the Giuseppe Meazza. A loan move to Sheffield United proved fruitless, and another loan deal to Malmö before the winter break followed. Whether he can get his Croatian agent to do what is best for his players interest, instead of negotiating ridiculous moves which help the agent build a villa on the Dalmatian coast is another question? The boy is good, super good. But guidance is what will make or break him.

Conclusion:

All in all, I think the common trend here is big ego's, poor agent player management, poor national team selection, and the lure of the fickle Dollar, Euro and Pound. The Macedonian players coming through need to realise that hard work pays off and no one likes an arrogant ass. The list above, all have or at some stage had the ability to become stronger footballers.

Srečko Katanec's derogatory comments about the attitude of some national team players must be taken seriously. His calls for players to adapt a more professional attitude must be heeded. That said, the FFM must also take steps not to only nurture blinding young talent, but to be able to mentally prepare young players with blazing prospects. Football is a technical game, but even if you are a budding Ronaldo, if you don't have the right mental attitude, in more cases than other, you will fail miserably.

Of course hindsight is a wonderfull thing, but some of the attitudes and decisions some players have made are just down right confusing. Ultimately, this is costing the NT results.

Lets hope that our next generation don't fall victim to "almost" being a great footballer, but instead kick on to bigger things.

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