—- When he swapped Lugano for Leeds United in 2017, there was little to hint at the adventures that have ensued for Ezgjan Alioski.
The club he had joined were preparing for an eighth successive season in England’s second tier, and ended that campaign mired in mid-table mediocrity. His national team was faring worse still, having sunk to an all-time low 162nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Men’s World Ranking after a run of 14 losses in 18 matches.
Alioski himself was 25. Though clearly talented, he remained little-known outside Switzerland and his North Macedonian homeland – and no-one seemed to know his best position. Having started out as a left-back, he had been converted to a right winger at Lugano, then reshaped again into a centre-forward.
His subsequent rise reflects that of his teams. As Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds became an impressive, much-lauded addition to England’s Premier League, and North Macedonia made history by qualifying for the UEFA EURO and inflicting Germany’s first FIFA World Cup™ qualifying defeat in two decades, Alioski emerged as a key man.
Maintaining that skywards trajectory is now the target of a player who has thrived since returning to his original role on the left. But before tackling future challenges, it was time to reflect on events and people that, over the past few years, have utterly transformed his life and career.
FIFA.com: Ezgjan, it’s been an incredible year for North Macedonia. How do you reflect on qualifying for the EURO and that win over Germany?
It’s been amazing. The biggest thing for us, as a team and a country, was the EURO. It was such a big step for North Macedonia as we had never done it before, but all the way through we really believed. With the team we’ve built over the past five or six years, we know we are strong, that the quality is high. There is good talent and a nice mix of young players and experienced guys, and we’ve become a close group over the past few years because the team hasn’t changed much in that time. Now we’ve achieved our dream together.
It was a bit of a fairy tale that the winning goal in the EURO play-off should come from Goran Pandev. What’s he like, both as a player and a personality?
I look at him sometimes and think, ‘This guy is 38. It’s incredible. Imagine if he was ten years younger – he could win the Ballon d’Or.’ He’s an amazing player. And it’s not just his quality and his experience – he’s also a very good person. You wouldn’t know from the way he behaves around us that he’s won the Champions League and done all these other amazing things in his career. He doesn’t behave like a star at all and, if you have any issue or problem, he’s always there for you. A new generation has come through, but there won’t be a legend like Pandev in this generation. He’s given so much to the country and the team and is someone we all look up to. It’s great that he’s getting to a big tournament after all those years of trying so hard.
The EURO is of course the next big challenge. But how much would it mean to you to play at a World Cup?
Like every kid who loves football, I grew up dreaming of playing in all these big competitions: the Champions League, the EURO and the World Cup. And those other two – the World Cup and the Champions League – are now my big targets. When we beat Germany, we have to believe we can get there because, in my opinion, we are better than Romania, Iceland and the other teams in our group. So why not? Getting to a World Cup is definitely the next step that Macedonia needs to take.
That qualifying win in Germany caught the rest of us by surprise. But did you see it coming?
We really did. We went there with full respect, knowing we were up against a four-time world champion with players in all the top clubs. But my opinion is that football has changed a lot and we also have players at top clubs, playing at a high level. Teams like ourselves can cause surprises and we’d already played well against other big teams – drawing 1-1 with Italy, for example – so we thought, ‘Why not Germany too?’ We saw they’d had problems in previous matches and we really felt confident we could at least get a draw. And although they had a lot of possession, they didn’t manage many shots on goal. We played really well tactically, fought like a real team, and played with a lot of character and heart. I felt we deserved the win. The fact I can say that shows how far we’ve come in the last few years. Our federation deserves credit too for developing young players and so does our coach, who has managed us well and always believed in us.
What’s Igor Angelovski like as a coach? Are there any similarities to Bielsa?
It’s tough to compare the two because they have their own philosophies and personalities, and the job of coaching a national team is quite different to coaching a club. Plus, Bielsa is special – you cannot compare him to anyone else because he’s a one-off! (laughs) What they have in common is that they both do their jobs very well. Angelovski is a guy who really believes in himself and his players, and he puts a lot of importance on having a good relationship with us, creating a good feeling in the team and giving us confidence in ourselves. When you go out in the field with a coach like that, it gives you a lot of security on the field. You feel really calm. And you can see in the results – we’ve gone from being above 100 in the FIFA Rankings to now being at 65 – that what he’s doing is working.
Even with that ranking rise, you’re still the lowest-ranked team at the EURO. All the same, do you think that Germany result will create a bit of fear among your opponents?
I hope not because it’s nice for us, and it works for us, to be in the position of underdogs. We enjoy showing people what North Macedonia is all about. I’ve always said that there’s a lot of talent in our region; all we have lacked is the money and the infrastructure that exists in countries like England. But now we have qualified, we have a great chance to build for the future.
Finally, we have to ask you about Leeds. How enjoyable has it been to be part of that journey with Bielsa, taking a big club back to the Premier League and making such a major impact?
I always tell people: Leeds United changed my life. As a football player, yes, but also as a person. I’m calmer, more experienced and more mature now, and that’s thanks to what I’ve learned here. I can also say that about Bielsa as a coach after three years together. He’s changed my whole outlook on life and improved me so much as a player. I feel I’ve improved every day working with a coach like him and I’m so grateful. I know I need to enjoy it too because those three years have been so good, but they have gone so quickly. The Premier League has been a great experience for us so far, and I want to finish as high as possible because I really believe we’ve built a strong and very special team here.