Macedonians' rising dream
© AFP

'I have a dream' is one of the most famous short sentences in world history. In its own small way, it applies perfectly to the footballers of FYR Macedonia, whose dream is a place at the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The dream is closer to becoming reality than ever before.

Mirsad Jonuz's team are on a roll, not only in European qualification for South Africa 2010 but also in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. After spending the last three months anchored in 64th spot, the Macedonians are up 11 places to 53rd in the latest publication of the global ladder, just seven spots shy of their personal best, achieved in October 2008.

The rise up the Ranking owes to good displays in FIFA World Cup qualifying in June. Following a goalless draw with Norway, Aco Stoikov and Filip Ivanovski struck to seal a 2-0 win over Iceland. In the Group 9 standings, where the Netherlands have already streaked clear to win the section, Macedonia are level on seven points with second-placed Scotland, who have a game in hand. The sides meet in Glasgow in September, and the showdown could decide who seizes the crucial runners-up spot.

Ups and downs for FYR Macedonia

The east Europeans have come a cropper before against nations from the opposite side of the continent. FYR Macedonia appeared poised to progress to France 1998 after a famous 3-2 victory over the Republic of Ireland, only to lose their last three games, slump to fourth, and let the Irish take the play-off berth instead. That remains their best performance in qualifying for any major tournament.

After another fourth place in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002, the Macedonians, who were admitted to FIFA in 1994, were hoping for an improvement in the battle for places at UEFA EURO 2004. However, and despite a creditable 2-2 away draw with England, their group campaign was a disappointment and they finished second-bottom.

In qualifying for Germany 2006, then-coach Boban Babunski was confronted with two major problems: a genuinely tough group featuring the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Romania and Finland, and a team seriously short on experience. Despite it all, the Macedonians succeeded in drawing twice with the Dutch, the only points the section-winning Oranje were to drop in their 12 matches. However, FYR Macedonia could only win two games themselves and finished way off the pace in fifth.

Showdown in September

The latest generation is now determined to appear at the South Africa 2010. Following coach Srecko Katanec's resignation in the wake of a 4-0 defeat by the Netherlands, U-21 coach Jonuz has stepped up to the senior job. The results against Norway and Iceland have certainly fanned the flames of hope. By way of preparation for the crunch qualifiers in Scotland and Norway, Jonuz will lead his troops into battle in an August friendly against European champions Spain.

The Macedonians then travel to Glasgow almost exactly a year after the sides first crossed swords in qualifying. On 6 September 2008, Ilco Naumoski sent the Skopje crowd into raptures with the winning goal. On 5 September 2009, he and his team-mates are determined to pull off another upset and keep alive their hopes of a place at the 19th edition of the world finals.

Is the team built around Lazio's Goran Pandev, Igor Mitreski of Energie Cottbus and captain Goce Sedloski from Mattersburg equipped to cope with the pressure? If so, their dream of a maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup could yet become a reality.