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By Brian Homewood
(Reuters) - Goran Pandev has been spearheading North Macedonia's attack for the best part of two decades and, though it seemed he was chasing a lost cause for much of that time, his persistence has been rewarded with their qualification for Euro 2020.
The 37-year-old, scorer of the winning goal against Georgia on Thursday which took North Macedonia to their first major tournament, has played under 14 different coaches, made 114 appearances and scored 36 goals since his debut against Turkey in 2001.
Pandev, who has a first division club named after him in the Macedonian league, summed up his national team career in an Instagram post several days before Thursday's match.
"More than 19 years with this jersey, the most beautiful in the world. Defeats, victories, joys, humiliations," said Pandev, who put off his retirement for a shot at playing at a major tournament.
For most of their history, North Macedonia have routinely finished one or two places off the bottom of their European and World Cup qualifying groups and they reached a low point around five years ago when they dropped to 116th in the FIFA rankings.
A frustrated Pandev himself briefly quit in 2011 when he told local media he was fed up with fans jeering him and his team mates but was quickly persuaded to return by coach Mirsad Jonuz.
There was a more serious falling out after they finished bottom of their 2014 World Cup qualifying group. Pandev complained that the team were sent on "cheap, charter flights" and he sometimes had to pay his own way to Skopje for home games.
But the situation changed when Igor Angelovski was appointed coach in 2015. Still in charge, making him by far their longest-serving coach, Angelovski repaired the relationship with Pandev, brought him back into the team after a two-year absence and they have not looked back since.
Pandev has spent nearly all his club career in Serie A, where he was part of Inter Milan's treble winning team in 2010, and last season helped save Genoa from relegation.
Back home, he founded a youth academy, Akademija Pandev, which also sprouted a senior team which won promotion to the North Macedonian First League in 2017 and finished seventh last season.
"This was a great win for our people," said Pandev after Thursday's game.
"I just wanted to help the guys because this is a young group, an amazing group, and they deserve it. Age doesn't matter, because I've played many games like this and I've had that experience."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis)