Skopje (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) – The small Balkan state of North Macedonia was over the moon Friday after qualifying for next year’s European football championships, a historic victory that goes beyond sport for a country which struggled for decades to have even its name recognised.

Thousands of jubilant fans waving the country’s red-and-yellow flag poured into the streets of the capital Skopje Thursday, singing the national anthem and setting off fireworks, after the Red Lynxes beat Georgia 1-0 in a tense playoff final in Tbilisi.

Since gaining independence three decades ago, the country of some two million people had never come close to reaching a major tournament, but were given a chance after UEFA’s Nations League offered Europe’s minnows a route to Euro 2020, as the tournament postponed due to Covid-19 is still to be called.

On Friday morning, the returning heroes were greeted by fans and members of the government while newspapers ran headlines like “Football Euphoria” and “Skopje Burns”.

“Our dream came true,” said the team’s captain Goran Pandev, the veteran forward who scored the winning goal in the 56th minute. 

“The boys deserved this and we are still not fully aware of what we have done. I simply did not believe that at the age of 38 I would qualify for a Euro,” added Pandev, a former player for Italian giants Inter Milan who is now with Genoa and is his country’s all-time top goal-scorer.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who led the welcome party, hailed the “joy” they team had created. 

“One goal for all, one win for all!” he said, celebrating the team’s ethnic diversity.

– New name –

North Macedonia, who sat 65th in FIFA’s world rankings before the game, now go into Group C alongside the Netherlands, Austria and Ukraine.

Its tournament debut will take place under a slightly different name than previous years.

Until last year, the country competed under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) — a workaround to avoid ire from Greece, who never accepted the name “Macedonia” because it has a province bearing the same name.

A historic deal between the neighbours saw Skopje add “North” to its official name last year, ending a decades-old row and opening a path towards joining the European Union.

Thursday’s victory comes as fresh affirmation of the young nation’s place on the map.

“We have entered Europe, finally!”, one fan wrote on social media. 

“This is a result that will be written in sports history”, Aleksandar Stikov, a veteran sports commentator, told AFP.

“It represents the fulfilling of the dreams of all generations that dreamt to play in a European championship but did not succeed,” he added.

– ‘Once in a lifetime’ –

Stikov was the official commentator during the first match the Lynxes played under their own flag against Slovenia in 1993, just after the country declared independence from war-torn Yugoslavia. 

Thirty years later, the victory is especially sweet for a nation that has become accustomed to being eclipsed by the other neighbours who emerged from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Croatia in particular have become a football power, reaching the World Cup final in 2018.

North Macedonia’s progress was made possible by the squad’s undisputed hero, Pandev.

But at age 38, the team’s future will ultimately rest on the shoulders of rising stars like Leeds United winger Ezgjan Alioski and attacking midfielder Elif Elmas of Napoli.

Darko Pancev, a striker who was a hero when the team first emerged on the international stage in the early 1990s, urged the players to seize this golden opportunity.

“My generation had the most difficult period, because when we debuted Macedonia was at the bottom of the rankings,” Pancev, now a bar owner in Skopje, told AFP.

He also urged the authorities to use seize the qualification to improve football facilities in North Macedonia.

One of Europe’s poorest countries, it has only one UEFA-approved stadium and the budgets of the top clubs rarely reach the million-euro mark. 

“This generation has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to succeed and play against the best in Europe”, said Pancev.