The people of North Macedonia are celebrating after their national football team qualified for a major tournament for the first time in the country’s young history.
The 24-team lineup for the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 was completed on Thursday night with four playoffs that served up plenty of late drama in almost entirely empty stadiums. Hungary, Scotland and Slovakia were the other triumphant nations.
North Macedonia’s 1-0 win in Georgia was earned by an early second-half goal from veteran captain Goran Pandev, sparking late-night celebrations in the capital Skopje and across the country.
Playing in his 114th international, Pandev netted his 36th — and by far most important — goal for his country to cement his status as a national hero. Aged 37, he is 11 years older than the nation he represents.
The former Yugoslav republic, which has been the subject of long-standing tussles over the country’s name, became an independent member of FIFA and UEFA only in 1994.
The game was perhaps the biggest in the history of two young soccer nations, but no fans were allowed into the 54,000-seat national stadium in Tbilisi.
Currently ranked No. 65 by FIFA, North Macedonia joins Finland as the only major tournament newcomers next year.
The Balkan nation goes into Group C hosted by the Netherlands and Romania. In the group stages next June it will face Austria and Ukraine in Bucharest before taking on the top-seeded Netherlands in Amsterdam.
The biggest winners on Thursday night were Hungary and Scotland. They are among the 12 host nations scattered across Europe and now get two home games in the group stage.
Scotland gave up a 90th-minute equalizer before winning a tense penalty shootout to reach its first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France.
The Scots scored all five penalties in the shootout after a 1-1 draw against Serbia, before goalkeeper David Marshall saved the home team’s final spot-kick from Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Scotland’s reward is a Group D place and a mouth-watering encounter against England, as well as fixtures with Croatia and the Czech Republic.
Hungary scored two late goals to beat Iceland 2-1. Having trailed against Iceland from the 11th minute until levelling in the 88th, Dominik Szoboszlai ran on and rifled a low shot to seal the stunning victory in stoppage time in Budapest.
Slovakia also lost a lead late in the game but scored an extra-time winner against Northern Ireland in Belfast. The home side almost clinched victory after equalising with an own goal in the 88th minute, going on to hit the post in stoppage time. But Slovakia it was who went through 2-1 thanks to a 110th-minute goal by Michal Ďuriš.
The qualifying format guaranteed a tournament place for a low-ranked country that won a group in the bottom tier of the inaugural Nations League played two years ago.
The four Nations League tiers fed into four playoff brackets, giving second chances to teams which did not advance through traditional qualifying groups last year.
The playoffs were originally scheduled for March but were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic which also forced UEFA to delay Euro 2020.