The new European season may be in its infancy but for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia it is already one of the most historic, with two clubs having advanced to the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round for the first time.
With the dangling carrot of a tie over the next two Thursdays against former European champions Liverpool FC, FK Rabotnicki stoutly defended the one-goal lead they had established in their home first leg against Armenia's FC Mika. Continental debutants FK Teteks – who defeated Rabotnicki in the Macedonian Cup final – made it a second qualifying round night to remember by beating last term's group-stage entrants from Latvia, FK Ventspils, 3-1 at home and on aggregate.
Teteks coach Toni Jakimoski, whose charges now meet Sweden's IF Elfsborg, told UEFA.com: "
The fact Teteks and Rabotnicki are playing in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League is immense and a historic achievement for Macedonian football. This is a new beginning, a new page I hope we will keep writing and complete successfully."
Excited by the knowledge there are at least two more weeks' continental action to enjoy, fans in FYROM now eagerly await the visit of Liverpool to Skopje's Filip II Arena on 29 July for what will be manager Roy Hodgson's first match in charge of the English club. "We have knocked out Mika, enabling fans in Macedonia to see one of the best teams next week," said Zoran Stratev, the Rabotnicki coach. "We are more than pleased. This is a great success for Rabotnicki and for Macedonian football."
Although he recognises the size of the task against opponents who begin as overwhelming favourites to make the play-off round, Stratev vows that his squad will make things difficult for Liverpool. He said: "
We are aware that Liverpool are 99% favourites, even in Skopje, but I can promise we will give our best."
Jakimoski, meanwhile, intends to advance a step further than in 2003/04 when, as a player under the guidance of Stratev at FK Vardar, his hopes of a UEFA Champions League group stage place were dashed in the third qualifying round. "That season unfortunately we didn't manage it because Sparta Praha eliminated us, but now as a coach I have an incredible opportunity against Elfsborg.
"I accept that Elfsborg, like Ventspils, are a big club with tradition, but again, I think our chances of winning through are at least 50-50," Jakimoski added. "The stakes for both teams are colossal, and I hope we will prove once more that we are a compact and capable team, able to be the first from FYR Macedonia to play in the group phase of a European competition."