If you were to mention the name Goran Pandev to an informed commentator of European football, they’ll tell you of his dynamic forward play, his wicked left foot, and an impressive record of appearances and goals in one of the continent’s top domestic leagues. Mention his name to a North Macedonian, and you’ll hear a response permeated with references to an icon, a hero, a demi-god.
For Pandev is much more than a highly talented footballer to his native countrymen, and is the very embodiment of a nation’s spirit. In a land which has grappled with its identity throughout various stages in history, Pandev illustrates a clarity of vision, a continuity, a source of pride amidst an often-challenging backdrop. Pandev is older than the country in which he hails from, but his bond with the fledgling nation of Macedonia (or North Macedonia since 2018, the eventual conclusion to a protracted naming dispute with Greece over the historical significance of the region of ‘Macedonia’) is irreproachable.
Pandev spent his formative years in a fractured region of Europe, but his personal exploits have contributed to the galvanisation of a nation, and his legacy will outlast generations.
Players being indelibly woven into their respective country’s footballing tapestries isn’t a new phenomenon, and often surfaces when the power dynamic between player and nation is heavily weighted towards the former. Andriy Shevchenko of Ukraine, Aleksander Hleb of Belarus, and Gareth Bale of Wales are all contemporary examples whereby the star of the icon shines brighter than the collective sum of their international teammates. The hero’s prestige and panache seem keenly at odds with the shirt they adorn and the surroundings they encounter. In his pomp, Hleb would turn out in front of 100,000 Catalans one week, before strutting his stuff in front of a fifth of that number in Minsk the following one. Shevchenko and Bale would regularly have similarly modest crowd returns for their international fixtures, versus bumper numbers at the San Siro and Bernabeu respectively. The level of expectancy, adoration and adulation is palpable at every international game, with the natives placing an unquantifiable level of trust in their linchpin. It is up to their national saviour to routinely deliver.
If possible, however, the relationship garnered between Pandev and his compatriots is even deeper than the equivalent links held by Messrs Bale, Shevchenko and Hleb, and therefore the subsequent emotion and pressures are also proportionately accentuated.
Pandev is the very beating heart of North Macedonia. He encapsulates its struggle, and emboldens a nation’s consciousness. This article examines how the former Inter forward has not only dragged his beloved Macedonia through many an on-pitch duel, but has also single-handedly spearheaded the country’s footballing brand, reputation and ambition off the park. One should also not underestimate the socio-political impact of his sporting exploits, and must position any review of his input through the lens of the Macedonian state in its entirety.
Pandev is therefore not simply an icon; he is the personification of a nation. What’s more, in a country generally bereft of famous figures and with little clout in global diplomatic circles, Pandev’s role as local hero steps up another gear. This tiny Balkan state has, for a substantial period of time, invested all of its hopes in a solitary individual. Lucky for them, the broad shoulders of Goran Pandev have been all too ready to leverage this burden, and almost tangibly carry a nation towards its footballing and cultural future.
To understand Pandev’s holistic impact on North Macedonia, this account will outline three component parts that have thus contributed towards the strengthening of a nations footballing credibility, the awakening of a populations sense of civic pride and hope for betterment, and a lasting legacy that will engage and inspire the next generation(s) of Macedonians:
- His performance abroad
- His performance ‘at home’
- His plan for the future
All of these endeavours have conspired to put Pandev at the coalface of his nation’s development, and firmly in the hearts and minds of the North Macedonian people.
Italian glamour and humble beginnings
Born in 1983, when Macedonia was no more than a constituent part of Yugoslavia’s network of socialist republics after its incorporation into Tito’s span of control, Pandev grew up in a region pervaded by political strife and conflictual trauma, although Macedonia itself seceded from Yugoslav rule in relative peace. However, the financial turmoil catalysed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its hegemony over Eastern Europe would severely impede its economy, and Pandev was to learn lifelong values of humility and restraint from an early age.
This humble backdrop is rather out of kilter with a career characterized by stints with clubs located in affluent northern Italy. Yet, it is ironically Pandev’s down-to-earth nature that has endeared him to many a coach and fanbase in one of the most prestigious leagues in European football: the Serie A. Indeed, former Lazio Head Coach, Delio Rossi, once anecdotally reflected on Pandev’s modest charm, explaining that he used to return to pre-season training in ‘portly’ condition after indulging the culinary delights and creature comforts of his hometown. How many modern-day footballers could so effortlessly slot back into their previous rituals? Not many I would propose.
The Serie A has housed Pandev’s considerable talents for the best part of twenty years, adorning the jerseys of some of Italy’s elite institutions. Lazio, Napoli and Inter Milan have been all been happy to provide a platform for the Macedonian powerhouse to showcase his talents, with Genoa currently reaping the reward of having Pandev in the playing roster. For a nation in its primitive stages of development, having one of its own appear in the prestigious arena of Italian football must have been as inspirational as it was impressive.
Furthermore, Pandev was by no means a periphery figure. Despite an initial rocky spell with giants Inter Milan, the forward would come to take the league by storm in his spell with Lazio, notching 48 goals in 159 games with the ‘Aquilotti’, and taking the Coppa Italia in his inaugural season. A few decent campaigns with a seasoned European force may be not much cop for the inhabitants of most European nations, but, for Macedonians, this was a ringing endorsement of their most famous export, and proof that he, and potential future stars, could rub shoulders with the world’s best.
His exploits in Rome earned him a controversial move back to Milan, when Inter recognized the error of their ways and lured Pandev north. If his tenure at Lazio was perforated with stunning performances and the start of unbridled adoration in his homeland, then his return to Italy’s industrial heartland could be branded as a trophy-laden journey that crystallized his hero status amongst the Macedonian masses, and engendered a ‘cult of the personality’ of Stalinist proportions (just without the oppressive tyranny).
In May 2010, Pandev was part of the all-conquering Inter side that secured the delivery of a fifth-consecutive Scudetto, the re-gaining of the Coppa Italia, and the elusive acquisition of Europe’s premier football crown: the UEFA Champions League. Playing wide left of a potent attacking three, Pandev started a final that would conclude in him becoming the first and (thus far only) Macedonian to lift Europe’s showpiece title since its declaration of independence in September 1991.
Even the unprecedented exploits of Red Star Belgrade pair Darko Pancev and Ilija Najdoski cannot compete. The Yugoslav outfit joined the limited list of eastern European sides who triumphed on a continental stage, overcoming French champions Marseille in 1991. Macedonian’s Pancev and Najdoski played an integral part in this ground-breaking victory, however hoisted the famous trophy aloft four months before their nation liberated itself from its Soviet shackles. The duo may have been of native descent, but their contributions were ultimately vaunted under the banner of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Pandev’s personal playing history can be compartmentalised within the tentative history of the independent Macedonian nation- and that’s what makes his achievements resonate so much more with his fellow countrymen.
Yet, as much as Pandev did his nation proud on distant shores, his commitment in Macedonian red was perhaps an even greater catalyst towards native cult status.
Whilst he was making waves across the Mediterranean Sea, Pandev would regularly return for international duty, no doubt buoyed by his nation’s steadily rising stock in the European theatre. There was certainly no shortage of landmark results, and, somewhat unsurprisingly, Pandev would make a plethora of definitive contributions in their manufacturing.
He would score the initial equaliser in a famous draw with the Dutch during the 2006 World Cup qualification campaign, and feature in the goalless return in the Amsterdam ArenA. Pandev entered the fray against England as a spritely teenager, present in another stalemate between the diminutive Balkan nation and one of Europe’s big players. And, in 2009, the Serie A veteran almost single-handedly drove Macedonia to a famous evening in Skopje, striking twice as his side lost narrowly to European champions Spain 3-2, in what would have been a seismic upset against the unplayable tika taka style of a side who would go on to lift the World Cup in South Africa the following year.
It was at this juncture that we can perhaps see the first crystallisation of Pandev’s impact on his homeland. Macedonia had provided the world with a genuine footballing name, and, although he was not quite in the same stratosphere as those privileged few in the ‘superstar’ bracket, the forward was certainly causing a stir in the upper echelons of the European game. Pandev had also made his international debut at the tender age of 17, and therefore by 2009 had registered nearly a decade of caps.
Underlining Pandev’s monumental contribution was the national acclamation he received for his ongoing input; he was awarded the Medal of Service to Macedonia in November 2009 for his services to Macedonian sport, both by raising its profile overseas and inspiring the domestic population. A mere year earlier the tiny landlocked nation had risen to position 46 in the FIFA rankings- ahead of Belgium. Pandev was instrumental in a nation punching significantly above its weight, and relished representing the underdog with all the tenacity and passion his people had become accustomed to.
Indeed, this spirit has been an enduring feature throughout his international escapades, and his recent heroics with the re-named North Macedonia has lit up the second half of an incredible career still going strong into its twenty-second year.
For the first time in its relatively inexperienced international tenure, North Macedonia stood on the precipice of major tournament qualification in November 2020. Igor Angelovski’s side had earned a backdoor route via the virtue of its performance in the inaugural Nations League competition, a welcomed tournament that would help elevate opportunity for the so-called ‘lesser nations’. North Macedonia would take full advantage. In a Path ‘D’ play-off route which would see them dispatch of an even younger nation in the form of Kosovo, Pandev would score the elusive winner against Georgia to historically claim entry in the pandemic-delayed 2020 European Championships. If Pandev’s name was already inscribed in North Macedonia’s footballing home of fame, then this goal would etch him into the narratives of his country’s cultural history.
The creation of ‘Akademija Pandev,’ an academy built to harness prodigious talent in his hometown of Strumica, is the first manifestation of a legacy that will serve many a future generation. Pandev has been instrumental in the establishment of a centre for footballing excellence that bears his name, working with coaching duo Jugoslav Trechovski and Ilija Matinicharov in the academy’s set-up and subsequent growth. However, being of humble origin and forever down-to-earth in approach, Pandev is disinterested in utilizing the academy to massage an ego or to proliferate his already entrenched status as a cult icon; he personally funds a colossal 50% of Akademija’s operational budget, and it’s been clear since the outset that this has been an entirely selfless act to support the under-resourced community in which he previously resided.
Trenchovski recalls a conversation between the two, where Pandev stated, ‘I want to use this money that’s made me rich and put it into it into football, my city, our kids and my country.’ This soundbite rather perfectly captures the romantic bond this icon feels towards his young, adoring nation.
The academy has come to grow arms and legs, augmenting the nation’s youth ranks with serious playing quality, and providing a base for those with legitimate career aspirations in the game. However, even the founding trio wouldn’t have envisioned the expedience of development, culminating in the fielding of a fledgling senior side in 2014. A side which would come to grace Macedonia’s First Division by 2017, lift the domestic cup in 2019, and therefore compete in the Europa League the following season. Although this ended prematurely to the hands of Zrinjski Mostar of Bosnia & Herzegovina in the first qualifying round, it stands as a barometer of the club’s sensational progress over an incredibly short period of time.
It is arguably this project that outweighs even the cumulative sum of his ‘on-field’ activities. This is where the journey comes full circle. Pandev has now not only mobilized a nation of talent through the vehicle of inspirational performance in an elite league abroad, he has provided the very apparatus that will bring internal mobility for a country’s disadvantaged youth, harnessing the skill set of a group who may have well have led a life of mundanity and apathy amidst difficult economic conditions.
And this here lies the critical point: many footballers engage and ignite a passion in aspirational young boys and girls, but how many ultimately provide a considered framework in which to nurture local players? How many can honestly correspond the career of a young footballer to the tangible actions that they have taken to stimulate grassroots improvement? Plenty have thrown money at a cause, but very, very few have owned a project and taken direct accountability for their nation’s footballing future.
This is where Pandev separates himself from comparable national icons, and must be honoured as an agent for progressive improvement in his native land’s infrastructure and sporting prowess. Furthermore, to do this whilst embodying the kind of unassuming spirit that so often typifies a young nation’s character is particularly impressive, and is perhaps the most apt measure of the man’s greatness.
Humility, not hubris
Indeed, it wasn’t the legend’s 144 goals in a club career that spanned 635 appearances, nor was it a record-breaking tally of 38 international strikes, neither in fact was it the considerable haul of 11 pieces of club silverware that has made him revered in his native territory. It was his character, ensconced with traits that are so often rarely seen in the contemporary game: selflessness, humility, and a sense of duty to one’s nation.
The establishment of an academy that has now flourished into a competitive league team with European aspirations is the chief protagonist to his internal fame, adulation, and most likely durable legacy. It could be deemed a fitting by-product of an enriched and fulfilling career.
Pandev has come to represent an entire footballing landscape. When he eventually retires (one assumes he eventually will, although shows no sign of winding down at the ripe old age of 38), external audiences will remember a quality footballer, famed for international heroics and fleetingly lighting up one of the continent’s best leagues. However, walk through the streets of Skopje, and you’ll hear of an immortalised figure who carries a nation’s very spirit, has provided momentous joy to an often-under-privileged population, and one who has given hope to an untold number of North Macedonian protégé’s. For me, the second description is far more reflective of how Pandev should be perceived, regardless of the commentator’s heritage.
A football god of mythological proportions? You’ll be hard-tasked to prove otherwise.