TBILISI: North Macedonia qualified for Euro 2020, their first major tournament, after a second-half goal from 37-year-old forward Goran Pandev gave them a 1-0 win away to Georgia in their playoff in Tbilisi.
Pandev, his country’s most capped player and all-time leading scorer, flicked the ball home in the 56th minute of a tense, scrappy match played on a slippery pitch and was in tears as his team celebrated at the end.
Georgia, also hoping to qualify for their first major tournament, lost their composure after the goal and never threatened to get back into the game.
North Macedonia will face Austria, the Netherlands and Ukraine in Group C at Euro 2020, which has been postponed until June-July next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ccoach Igor Angelovski said: “We will play for our nation’s pride in the finals.”
North Macedonia qualified through the back door, via the fourth division of UEFA’s inaugural Nations League competition, but their players were not going to let that detract from their achievement.
Pandev said: “I am so happy. I’ve have played in a lot of games like this before and I think my experience helped the team to achieve this success.”
The match was predictably cagey and it took 28 minutes before either goalkeeper had to make a save when Georgian playmaker Tornike Okriashvili tested Stole Dimitrievski with a long-range shot.
Okriashvili also sent a shot swerving narrowly wide of the post as Georgia threatened to take control. But, with winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia missing after testing positive for COVID-19, they lacked invention in attack.
Eljif Elmas broke down the left and slipped the ball to Ilija Nestorovski inside the penalty area and he found Pandev who flicked the ball passed Giorgi Loria for his 36th international goal.
North Macedonia had only one real scare when an intended cross by Okriashvili nearly flew into the top corner but Dimitrievski caught it under the bar and just managed to cling on.
Hungary hit back
Hungary scored twice in the last two minutes to complete a 2-1 win over Iceland and qualify for Euro 2020.
Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson was set to be the hero for Iceland when his free-kick was fumbled in by Peter Gulacsi.
But substitute Loic Nego smashed into the bottom corner and then with extra time looming Dominik Szoboszlai curled in off the post.
Hungary will join Portugal, France and Germany in Group F next summer, with Budapest a host city.
Budapest’s new Puskas Arena, completed last year for the finals, is one of the 12 host stadiums for the competition – with Hungary also set to play Germany in Munich.