'We worship him': Euro swansong for Pandev, N.Macedonia's captain

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When Goran Pandev stabbed home the winning goal that sent North Macedonia to a European Championship for the first time, he was merely capping his status as the country's greatest sportsman.

Euro 2020 may well be the swansong for the 37-year-old captain, who won the Champions League with Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan in 2010.

He has already hinted as much, telling journalists recently: "It will for sure be a tournament of emotions because for me these are the last matches."

Never say never. Pandev has tried to quit the national team before but he was persuaded to rejoin after two years away.

Apart from that break, he has been a fixture of the national team for 20 years, scoring a record 37 goals in 118 caps.

Among them was a tap-in that helped consign Germany to a 2-1 defeat earlier this year -- the former champions' first World Cup qualifier reverse in two decades.

But he regards the close-range shot against Georgia that sealed Euro qualification as the most important.

"That is my dearest goal because finally we qualified for a major tournament," he has said.

The magnitude of that achievement cannot be understated -- five years ago, North Macedonia were ranked 162 out of just over 200 teams.

They had never even been close to qualification before.

- 'Amazing person' -

The team coach Igor Angelovski is in no doubt how important Pandev is to his side's prospects.

"He is the best football player in our history and I'm happy and grateful that he accepted to come back as our leader, both on and off the pitch," Angelovski told AFP in an interview.

It was Angelovski who persuaded Pandev to rejoin the international set-up, and he described the star man's change of heart as the "most decisive factor" in helping them to qualify.

Fans writing on social media echoed the coach's enthusiasm.

"We worship him," writes one Twitter user. "He is loved by both coaches and teammates. He understands football, he has it in his pocket."

Although most fans are realistic about their chances, Angelovski is putting his faith in team spirit.

"We really have made a national team that lives united as a family, that will die for each other on the pitch," he said.

It is a big moment for the tiny former Yugoslav country, which unlike its neighbours Serbia and Croatia can boast of few sporting successes and even fewer legends.

Darko Pancev, a European Cup winner in 1991 with Red Star Belgrade, comes closest.

But this is a different era, where sports stars are almost expected to broadcast political opinions, create branding partnerships and project themselves far beyond their sport.

Pandev is something different -- a modest and understated professional who largely limits his public comments to football.

Even his social media is a low-key affair, dominated by pictures of his family and football, with one commenter summarising the general opinion of his countrymen: "Legend and amazing person."

- 'The peak' -

Pandev was raised in Strumica in a region known for farming near the border with Greece and Bulgaria.

His mother worked in a textile factory and his father in restaurants, a down-to-earth upbringing that allows fans to feel a real connection.

Yet he has been far outside the orbit of normal Macedonian life since the age of 18, when he made his international debut and was snapped up by Inter Milan.

Although his career has not always gone smoothly -- he failed to make a single appearance for Inter during his first spell -- he eventually made his name during five years with Lazio.

Inter brought him back in 2010 and he duly helped them to the Serie A title and Champions League.

Spells at Napoli, Galatasaray and his current club Genoa have followed, but Pandev is now fully focused on international recognition.

"Euro 2020 is the peak of my career," he says, adding that he will "probably" end his career after the tournament.

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