“If somebody told us before the tournament that we would have five points and win our preliminary group, I would have told him he is crazy.” Borko Ristovski may be blunt, but the 35-year-old goalkeeper has enough experience in his career – playing for teams like Vardar, Rhein-Neckar Löwen and FC Barcelona – that anyone should listen.
FYR Macedonia’s story might look to be unexpected at a first glance, but they have never been in a better situation than they are at the EHF EURO 2018.
Buoyed by Vardar’s VELUX EHF Champions League 2016/17 win, the Macedonian team can certainly consider themselves a medal threat in Croatia.
“We have that fire inside us”
Two narrow wins against Montenegro and Slovenia were accompanied by a draw versus Germany, in a game that would have resulted in their third win if it were not for Stojanche Stoilov’s missed attempt in the last 10 seconds.
Even though they came so close, the Macedonians were anything but sad after the result.
“We are very happy, we are very satisfied. For us it’s perfect, it is amazing. We will take this draw, and now we can rest more than our opponents. We are ready for the next three games and we will see what happens,” says left wing Dejan Manaskov.
FYR Macedonia led the main round rankings before the throw off, as the only team with three points – one point ahead of the likes of Spain, Denmark and Germany.
Their biggest advantage?
“We are properly crazy. We are a crazy bunch. I think everybody saw that we fight against every team, no matter if they are the current title holders. We have that fire inside us,” says Ristovski.
The Gonzalez effect
FYR Macedonia surprised us six years ago in Serbia when they placed fifth, after winning against Poland, Serbia and Slovenia, and drawing with Sweden. Now, they look even more dangerous, as they have Raul Gonzalez as head coach – the 48-year-old Spanish ace, who led Vardar to win the VELUX EHF Champions League last season. Gonzalez has never served as a national coach before and the EHF EURO 2018 is the first major international tournament for him in that position.
“Our coach is great, he is a handball master. We should be the happiest players in the world because he is one of the best coaches in handball right now, if not the best. He is amazing, he brought positive energy after winning with Vardar. He is a good motivator and he brought a very positive vibe in the team,” says Manaskov.
The 25-year-old left wing’s words are confirmed by veteran Kiril Lazarov, FYR Macedonia’s captain and former Atletico Madrid, FC Barcelona and Veszprém player.
“For me every coach is important. Raul Gonzalez is one of the best coaches in the world. We respect every coach – but maybe Raul more,” adds a smiling Lazarov.
Tactically speaking, Gonzalez brought a high-risk, high-reward approach, as demonstrated in the game against Germany. FYR Macedonia took out the goalkeeper for the entire first half for Gonzalez to give his team a seven-on-six advantage in attack.
“You cannot implement your tactical system against the will of the players, so I analysed the Macedonian system and added some Spanish influence to improve the team spirit. It worked well with Vardar – and hopefully with the national team too,” says Gonzalez.
But Gonzalez also helped the side mentally, with Vardar’s win serving as inspiration for the national team. “It is normal that a team like Vardar winning the VELUX EHF Champions League motivated us to do more. If they did it, why can’t we do it?” asks Ristovski.
Gonzalez, who won a bronze medal 22 years ago at the Olympic Games playing for Spain, will face ‘Los Hispanos’ for the first time in his career when FYR Macedonia meet the 2013 world champions in their opening main round match on Sunday. The pressure is there, as a Macedonian win will bring Gonzalez’s team closer to their first ever semi-final berth.
“Red and yellow – the colours of Spain and Macedonia are the same, so I feel like home,” jokes the Spanish coach.
More than 100,000 fans in Macedonia Square
There were 3,000 Macedonian fans at each game in Zagreb – probably the largest number of supporters for one team aside from the Croatian ones. Their joy has been infectious, and the players must dream of what would happen in Skopje if they bring home their first ever EHF EURO medal.
“When we finished fifth six years ago, there were 100,000 fans out on the streets of Skopje. Imagine what would happen if we win a medal. I just cannot think about this,” concludes Manaskov.
“All Macedonians are handball-crazy at the moment. More than 3,000 will come to support us in Varazdin, and will boost us and put a lot of pressure on our opponents. We thrive in this atmosphere, we are ready to give everything on the court.
“We are in a difficult situation. On the one hand, we were number one after the preliminary round, which was a surprise. On the other, the expectations are so huge, but we have world-class teams such as Spain and Denmark ahead. With this attitude and the right fighting spirit, we might have the chance,” concludes Gonzalez.
There is still a long way to go before that achievement and the path is a tough one, with difficult games against Spain and Denmark ahead. But if a team can unlock the impossible, it must be FYR Macedonia. They are crazy enough, aren’t they?