SKOPJE (Reuters) - North Macedonia finally put themselves on the soccer map by reaching their first major tournament as an independent nation when they qualified for Euro 2020 after three decades in the doldrums at club and international level.
Having gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, North Macedonia had never come close to appearing on the big stage before a 1-0 win over Georgia in their playoff final propelled them to the June 11-July 11 tournament.
After winning their group in the fourth tier of the 2018-2019 Nations League, the North Macedonians edged neighbours Kosovo 2-1 before a goal by their iconic 37-year old striker Goran Pandev sent them through against Georgia.
The success came in the wake of a steady decline which saw North Macedonia finish bottom of their Euro 2016 qualifying group with four points from a possible 30 and a similarly poor campaign in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Soccer in the country of two million took a back seat to handball as the national team regularly qualified for major events while Vardar Skopje enjoyed unprecedented success in European club competitions.
The men's team won the 2017 and 2019 Champions League titles while the women's outfit finished as runners-up in 2017 and 2018, with fans thronging the handball club's Jane Sandanski Arena in the country's capital.
Meanwhile, games at the overhauled national soccer stadium, which generated a full house of 33,000 for the 2017 UEFA Super Cup clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid, were sparsely attended.
However, reaching Euro 2020 seems to have put the wind into North Macedonia's sails as they also made a bright start to their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, having taken six points from their opening three group matches.
It included a stunning 2-1 win away to Germany in March with Pandev in the spotlight again as he fired the visitors ahead on the stroke of halftime before 21-year old midfielder Eljif Elmas netted a late winner.
The result ended Germany's 35-match unbeaten run in World Cup qualifying and sparked massive celebrations in North Macedonia, whose fans rediscovered their allegiance to the national team.
North Macedonia will start as underdogs in Group C, which includes matches against the Austria (June 13), Ukraine (June 17) and Netherlands (June 21) but will be devoid of any pressure to make an impact and could spring yet another upset.
Pandev is their leader but the squad also boasts several other talents including Napoli's Elmas, Leeds United wing-back Ezgjan Alioski and Mallorca forward Aleksandar Trajkovski.
The North Macedonians like to take the game to their rivals even if it means throwing caution to the wind at times but they are also an effective counter-attacking team as Germany found out in the epic clash in Duisburg.
With the Dutch being the obvious group favourites, North Macedonia are likely to look for their opportunity to reach the last 16 in games against Austria and Ukraine.
But even a group stage exit is unlikely to dampen the mood of the Balkan nation's fans whose long wait to revel in a party atmosphere on the biggest stage is finally over.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)