Earlier this week, Jugoslav Trenchovski took a call from Goran Pandev and decided to lightly tease his old friend. Pandev will be touching 40 when the next World Cup comes around but, having already pushed his retirement date back in pursuit of international glory with North Macedonia, surely an extension until Qatar 2022 would not be too much trouble. “Maybe the coach will pick me,” Pandev replied. “But I will weigh 15kg more than I do now.”
Pandev is already a heavyweight in every other sense. There will be no footballer at Euro 2020 who inspires as much reverence in his homeland; none whose playing career has spanned so much of a 30-year-old country’s own development. “Goran has a special energy that brings people close to him,” Trenchovski says. “He’s like a leader in the national team, but also like a leader of the nation.”
He will captain North Macedonia when they make their European Championship bow against Austria in Bucharest on Sunday evening, two decades and one week after winning his first cap. It is little short of a fairytale: a victory of optimism that led Pandev, who had intended to stop playing last year, to extend his spell with Genoa upon Euro 2020’s postponement. He knew his country had a genuine shot at what once seemed impossible: North Macedonia promptly beat Kosovo in the Nations League play-off semi-finals and then, on a night of impossible tension in Tbilisi, Pandev evaded the Georgia defence to score a historic winner and reduce himself to tears.
“Even as a kid he had in his DNA this ability to read the timing of his teammates, to adapt to any player,” says Delio Rossi, under whose management Pandev first became a formidable operator with Lazio in the mid-2000s. “This is the skill that makes him unique, the reason he has become irreplaceable in all the clubs where he has played. Goran sees the opportunity a few seconds before the others: it’s magical.”
Stealth, rather than show. Perhaps that quality is why Pandev, despite making 473 Serie A appearances and winning the Champions League with Internazionale in 2010, has never quite become a household name outside Italy or the region around North Macedonia. “He is not the type of player who gives you a motivational speech before the game, but a glance is enough from him,” Rossi says. “Goran is a silent leader, different from the others. His teammates have always loved him, it’s no coincidence.”
Even in a league that valorises longevity, Pandev’s consistency has been eye-catching. So has his dedication to affairs back home and it is best reflected by the work he has undertaken in Strumica. Pandev was born there, 20 miles from the borders with Greece and Bulgaria, in July 1983 and later joined the under-11 section of the local club, Belasica. “I remember when he came to his first training session,” says Trenchovski, who was playing for the under-18s. “The coaches had a meeting and were satisfied: ‘He’s very skilful, very talented, he’ll probably become a great player.’”
It might have seemed an overly optimistic thought: North Macedonia is listed among Europe’s six poorest countries and the journey upwards was even more arduous back then. But Pandev was too good to ignore: he graduated to Belasica’s first team and, after impressing Italian scouts at the famed Viareggio tournament, joined Inter at 18. Nine years later, having returned to San Siro from Lazio and become a treble winner under José Mourinho, he met up with Trenchovski, a successful coach by then, and decided to make others’ paths smoother.
“Belasica’s work with youngsters was at a poor level, so I said to him: ‘We must create something to help the young talents, the young kids,’” Trenchovski says. “And he told me: ‘Let’s work together, 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.’”
Akademija Pandev was born, with Pandev’s first coach, Ilija Matinicharov, completing the founding triumvirate, and if the name rings a bell it is because, in 2019-20, the senior team competed in the Europa League qualifiers after winning the domestic cup. They lost to Zrijnski Mostar but had an average age of 21 and a half.
No other European participant named after a current player springs to mind, although this is no vanity project. Pandev supplies about 50% of Akademija’s annual budget and has built facilities that outstrip any in North Macedonia. Thirteen youth teams run beneath the seniors and its players are sprinkled throughout the national age-group sides. “What Macedonia invests in Pandev, now Pandev gives back to Macedonia,” says Dragi Kanatlarovski, the manager who gave Pandev his international debut against Turkey. “Everyone knows what he has done here. He is an icon.”
A common theme runs through every anecdote about Pandev. “He is the person now that he was 20 years ago,” says Georgi Hristov, who spent three years with Barnsley and was the centre-forward for Macedonia, as the country was then named, when Pandev emerged. “A man without any black mark against him. He’s still a normal guy and it’s always difficult to be the same. My two kids idolise him. They have the Euro 2020 Panini album and were happiest when they got Pandev stickers. He is such an important influence for the children.”
Rossi tells a story that he believes “explains most of all the immense goodness of him”. Pandev scored 60 goals in four seasons under Rossi and his profile had rocketed; he came into training one day and told his Lazio colleagues that he had just been robbed, opting to stay silent after hearing criminals enter his house. “But the thieves also took his car keys, went to his garage and stole that too so they could get away,” Rossi says. “Pandev watched the whole scene from his window without doing anything, it was incredible. All the boys in the dressing room laughed. Goran is a fantastic, humble person.”
With a smile, Rossi suggests visits home left Pandev playing catch-up each summer, “like when you go back to eat at your grandmother’s, you let yourself go a bit”. Perhaps Pandev knew what he was talking about when telling Trenchovski to expect a more portly figure if North Macedonia, as they are threatening to do, make a sensational appearance in Qatar; in March Pandev scored as they won a qualifier 2-1 away to Germany. But with Austria, Ukraine and an inconsistent Netherlands making an escape from Group C look plausible, he may have a flourish or two in store before that.
“There are two types of player,” Rossi says. “The 98% who always need motivation, to be stimulated, who blame others when things don’t work out. And then there is the 2% who include Goran himself. They don’t care about pressure or a difficult game: when there is a big match, they fear nothing.”
Additional reporting by Fabrizio Romano