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Macedonia: Rising now to be a nation again

THE proximity of the Republic of Macedonia's Independence Day to Scotland's visit to Skopje could become a source of irritation for Gordon Strachan.

We do not want to finish bottom of the group or be in the last pot for the 2016 Euro draw
We do not want to finish bottom of the group or be in the last pot for the 2016 Euro draw

There can be no better motivation for footballers flying the flag for their country than a chance to perform for a public still celebrating its nationhood.

When Agim Ibraimi and his Macedonian team-mates march proudly out at Philip II Arena on Tuesday night, the stadium will be awash with yellow and red.

September 8 is now a national holiday to honour the successful referendum on that date in 1991 which delivered independence from Yugoslavia and Ibraimi has been a symbol of that spirit during this World Cup group A qualifying campaign by scoring against Macedonia's former Yugoslav partners, Croatia and Serbia.

If you throw in the winger's other contribution, scoring in a friendly win over another ex-Tito ­republic, Slovenia, and one in the 2-0 "friendly" win in Skopje last month over bitter enemies Bulgaria - who have been blocking Macedonia's bid to join the EU - then Ibraimi is excelling in his bid to carve out a football reputation for a country that is younger than he is.

When Ibraimi was born 25 years ago, his hometown of Tetovo was firmly in the old Yugoslavia. Now it produces several players for Cedomir Janevski's team and Ibraimi typifies the new breed of Macedonian, outward-looking and about to make his debut for Cagliari having moved from Slovenian side Maribor last Sunday.

Ibraimi will be joining his compatriot and national captain, Napoli striker Goran Pandev, in Serie A. The fact that two Macedonians can earn a living in Italy's top flight far easier than any Scot could says a lot about the changing football world and Ibraimi is keen to underline that fact on Tuesday.

He became a national hero by scoring Macedonia's winner when Serbia came to Skopje last October and also struck in the Philip II Arena when Croatia narrowly defeated the Macedonians 2-1. Janevski granted the midfielder time off in June and that allowed Ibraimi to gain a fresh perspective about Scotland.

"Our coach allowed me to miss friendlies in Sweden and Norway because I had such a long season with Maribor," explains Ibraimi. "So I watched the Croatia-Scotland game on television.

"I was not surprised that Scotland won, because once the game started you could see how hard the players worked. Croatia were the better team, but Scotland wanted it more.

"The Scottish team was different to the one I experienced in Glasgow. I felt we should have won that. We had a lot of chances when we led 1-0 and did not take them, but I was really surprised at Scotland. Any time I have played against British teams - like against Rangers for Maribor in the Europa League - there is a strong menality, but Scotland did not have that.

"I know that you have changed manager since then and it has worked. Beating Croatia proved that, but that win for you in Zagreb is a big motivation for us.

"We do not want to finish bottom of the group, especially as we do not want to be in the last pot when the qualifying draw is made for the Euro 2016. This is the hardest group of all. It has two of the world's best teams, in Belgium and Croatia, but no-one is safe because every team has beaten a better-ranked country. We did it to Serbia and you did it to Croatia. Every other country is strong because it has top stars playing in the English Premier League. Scotland also have players at Celtic in the Champions League. Macedonia does not, but we are improving and all of our squad play abroad now."

Ibraimi scored one of the goals which knocked Rangers out of the Europa League and impressed when Maribor played Lazio in last season's competition. The Slovenian side agreed on a deal with Cagliari once they missed out on a Champions League group place.

"Moving to Italy is a dream come true," declared Agim. "It's the league I watched as a child on television and I spoke to Goran Pandev about it. He has been in Italy a long time, first with Inter Milan, and said the championship has great atmosphere and big clubs.

"Living in Sardinia will be nice and I will get my visa after we play Scotland, but first I want a victory against Scotland to celebrate our Independence Day."

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