Popovski: Qualifying for European U21 Championship biggest achievement for Macedonian football

“Seeing our side among the best U21 teams in Europe gives our country’s football fans new heroes,” said Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM) general secretary Filip Popovski in the interview to UEFA’s website, and added that qualifying for the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals in Poland was one of the “biggest achievements” in the nation’s footballing history.

During qualifying, the Macedonian U21s attracted crowds in excess of 20,000, half of whom were children, while the players took a lap of honour before departing for Poland during the senior side’s European Qualifier against Spain at the National Stadium of Macedonia in Skopje on 11 June.

Macedonia may be the lowest-ranked side in the tournament, but they are not to be underestimated. In qualifying, they finished top of their group, pipping a France team which featured some of the hottest young properties in European football, such as Ousmane Dembélé and Tiemoué Bakayoko.

“There is a great atmosphere around the team, and we expect a lot of our countrymen to come and watch the side in Poland,” Popovski said, while adding that interest in the U21s is growing all the time. “We used the national team to help promote the finals of children’s tournaments within Macedonia as part of our grassroots activities. If we manage to get some good results in Poland, we will have even more activities.”

It is not surprising that team spirit within the camp is high, despite the opening day setback against Spain, as the core group have been playing together for the last three years, and coach Blagoja Milevski believes his team’s achievement can inspire more Macedonian youngsters to take up the sport.

“This will have a significant impact on our kids in every way, especially regarding motivation,” Milevski said. “From now on, something that was impossible becomes possible for all our young generations. I believe that in the future we will qualify for more and more final tournaments.”

Macedonia’s ascent to European football’s U21 elite is no accident. It is the culmination of years of work on developing the grassroots game in the landlocked Balkan nation. Assistance from UEFA’s HatTrick programme has allowed the FFM to construct ten artificial pitches, while an ongoing project will see the installation of five natural pitches, complete with floodlights.

Football academies have also been built across the country, while a lot of work is being done to help coach the country’s youth teams. The FFM are also investing time and money to widen their scouting programme in order to identify the best young players from all parts of the country.

“The HatTrick programme is one of the core UEFA programmes that can help national associations,” Popovski mentioned. “It has helped a lot, and we are using these funds to improve the infrastructure around the country.”

The FFM have big plans to continue to develop football. They want to see a continued increase in the number of people playing the game, as well as improving infrastructure and the rankings of the national teams.

In the more immediate term, the spotlight will once again fall upon Macedonia on 8 August, when the country will host one of its most eagerly-awaited fixtures in years, with Real Madrid taking on Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup.


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