WHEN Goran Pandev came off the bench against Turkey back in 2001 to make his debut for the national team, not even his most fanciful daydreams would have featured the striker leading his country out at the finals of a major tournament. But two decades on from picking up the first of 119 caps for North Macedonia, it is the 120th that the 37-year-old will cherish forever.

This is a man who has done it all at club level – the centre-forward was a part of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan side of 2010 – and one who, at times, has single-handedly dragged his country through decades largely filled with disappointment and despondency armed with little more than his sublime natural talent and insatiable will to lead.

Now, though, that burden is starting to be lifted. New talents have emerged in the form of Leeds United winger Ezgjan Alioski, Levante playmaker Enis Bardhi, Napoli’s Elif Elmas and Mallorca centre-forward Aleksandar Trajkovski. Pandev is undoubtedly the leader and possesses an almost patriarchal role within the squad and it is only now, two decades into his international career, that the Genoa striker has enough quality within the ranks of the supporting cast to make history with his country.

This generation of players have done what no other North Macedonian side have by qualifying for the Euros, and they did so in much the same way as Scotland did. Just as Steve Clarke’s men ended a 23-year wait to reach a tournament by successfully negotiating the Nations League play-offs, so too did Igor Angelovski’s side when a Pandev winner saw off Georgia to book their place at this summer’s tournament.

It was a just reward for a dedicated servant to the national team and it should have come as a shock to no one that with North Macedonia trailing in the first half after Marcel Sabitzer’s wonderful cross-field ball was stabbed home by Stefan Lainer, it was the veteran centre-forward they turned to to once again bail them out in their hour of need.

There was a little flashed warning early in the first half from Pandev as he linked up neatly with his team-mates down the right, twirling away from his marker and darting into the now vacant space, but it was not heeded.

With Austria seemingly in control and on the brink of doubling their advantage, an unfortunate lapse at the back wreaked havoc in their backline. The ball trundled towards Daniel Bachmann as Trajkovski went haring after it and although the goalkeeper won the foot race, his scuffed clearance fell kindly to the feet of Pandev to steer the ball home and restore parity after half an hour.

That strike sent belief coursing through the veins of his team. As time wore on it was North Macedonia who looked the more likely side to triumph, counter-attacking with pace and purpose and asking difficult questions of an Austrian defence that never truly convinced. But then, just as the momentum seemed to have shifted behind Pandev and Co, Michael Gregoritsch restored Austria’s advantage before Marko Arnautovic sealed the victory with a third in the 90th minute.

Alexander the Great, the titanic general of antiquity and North Macedonia’s most famous son, never lost a battle and while Pandev has suffered his fair share of defeats with North Macedonia over the years, this one will have felt different. Their very presence at the Euros was already a victory of sorts, and that they went toe-to-toe with and gave a talented Austrian side a run for their money will be an immense source of pride.

At the age of 33, Alexander wept as there were no worlds left to conquer. Pandev might have a few years on the national hero and was on the losing side of this battle in Bucharest, but his moment of magic – that thrilling instant when the day was his – was enough to leave neutrals all over the continent teary-eyed.