The Football Federation of Macedonia did a big interview with national team coach Blagoja Milevski.
all photos by FFM
The interview was made in Macedonian language, so the original version is available for reading by clicking here.
Head coach, at the beginning, what is your opinion about the challenges ahead of us in the Qualification for the European Championship 2024 and the possibility of being competitive in the group with England, Italy, Ukraine and Malta?
Qualifying for a major competition is a dream for every nation. The group we are in is extremely difficult, but at the same time it is a great challenge for all of us. We defeated Italy in Palermo, that match was perhaps the most important for them in recent history, and after the failure against Macedonia, for the second time in a row they missed the World Cup. They will be extremely motivated to seek revenge against us.
England is a top national team, Gareth Southgate is doing a great job with an extremely talented team. They worked together with a large part of the players in the young English selection and now they are hungry for big victories.
However, we must be prepared for whatever awaits us. Malta is a team that is continuously progressing and becoming a competitive and serious team. This is confirmed by their latest results.
Ukraine is a solid, great team. They play modern and attractive football, regardless of the opponent. We saw that in our match at the 2020 EURO.
It must be clear to us that all opponents already see Macedonia through a different prism, eager to beat us. But the footballers fought for that status by qualifying at the EURO, the 2022 WC qualifiers, and especially the way we played the two WC play-offs, the victory over reigning European champions Italy, and the final against Portugal.
It’s important to me that everyone is healthy, although I understand that we can’t completely influence that. I constantly talk to the players about the status and form in the clubs. They know that only fully prepared players can be competitive. During this whole period we built mutual trust, I believe we realized that we are here for each other, that the team is above each individual and that we all have to put ourselves in the function of the team. We have to confirm that in the upcoming matches. Our greatest strength must be the team.
You keep mentioning the second place in the qualifiers for the World Cup and the play-off matches against Italy and Portugal, although months have already passed since those matches, which unfortunately did not bring us a place in the World Cup.
The impression is that you talk little about the defeats, the Nations League matches, the defeats by Bulgaria and Georgia or the failure against Azerbaijan in the last friendly match.
For me, but also for many, Italy is our greatest triumph. A victory against the European champion in a play-off match for a place at the World Cup away from home is a special result. Unfortunately, we don’t often play matches of this type. I would be happy if it were otherwise. But I also have fond memories of the World Cup qualifiers and winning the second place in the group.
I understand that very often in our work the focus is always on the last matches played, but for me this is not all about “black and white”.
I want us to be objective. If we look at the real picture of the period after the play-off matches, and you are expecting duels from the Nations League in a period when some of the footballers are on vacation, some of them do not have clubs, others are looking for a new club, some of the holders of our game due to injury or fatigue are not able to put themselves into action and in 10 days you have to play 4 games, then it is illusory to demand a result at any cost from those who, despite all the circumstances, were there for our team. And, above all, we were emotionally exhausted after the match with Portugal. We saw that picture realistically and consciously focused on checking the potential that we will count on in the 2024 EURO qualifiers.
I said that our main goal is to create a team that will be competitive in the next EURO qualifiers, and the last matches and the Nations League matches served us in that direction. I consciously allowed some things that are beyond my principles in the last two control duels with the strong Finland and Azerbaijan, all in order to have a clear and realistic picture of the quality and potential of all the representatives.
The answer to the last question does not give such a feeling, but still, do you have pressure for your position?
I think I had more pressure in 2021 when I took over the team, so the World Cup qualifiers and finishing second and then the play-offs against Italy and Portugal happened.
I have been a professional coach for 11 years and I always try to develop and improve. My work style is certainly not the same as it was 10 years ago, but I have always gone step by step to a higher level.
The only pressure now is to maintain the level at which Macedonia is at the moment, which is quite high. This means that our obligation is greater and requires us to always be at the required level, to give more than our maximum, regardless of the opponent or the competition. We know we have the quality, talent and confidence to take on anyone, but only if we put it all to work as a team.
Some kind of story about the absence of important football players, above all Arijan Ademi and captain Stefan Ristovski, for the last round of matches is constantly circulating in the public.
To be honest, I have enough experience not to think about such attention from people who try to “weave” such stories. The most important thing for me is what I get as information in conversations with football players, including Stefan and Arijan. Nothing has ever been more important to me than that. That’s how we function.
I am professional, sincere in my intentions and always strive to be open and transparent. That’s what I ask from everyone, of course from football players too. It would be good for Macedonia to have them in the team for the qualifiers. I hope that like everyone else they will be healthy and ready to make themselves available.
In the team that you led at the 2017 U21 EURO there were many of the current generation. Hand on heart, now you are in a position where you don’t have such a large selection of footballers from the younger generations?
Many young national team members of that time are today in the best team: Bardhi, Zajkov, Velkovski, Nikolov, Elmas, Musliu, Babunski, Bejtulai or Shishkovski and Aleksovski. I met them at the early stage of their career and I am proud that they have made a great career. In Macedonia, we are always satisfied with the development of football players from the youth categories to the seniors, and that experience helps me in my work. As with the last generation that I led, now the team includes Churlinov, M. Ristovski, Miovski, Serafimov, Elezi, Atanasov, Ethemi, Todorovski, Fazlagic, Dimoski and Grozdanovski. Most of them have now joined the senior national team.
But in reality, our football infrastructure, especially club infrastructure, is bad, completely below the level that our national football deserves. The fans, the national team, the young players, the coaches – we all deserve more investment in football because it will be difficult to keep up with other countries that invest significantly more. And the base is created there. The Federation tries somehow to instill ambition in the clubs, and not to be the goal of “living” from season to season. It is also necessary for the clubs to think, plan and act in the long term. It refers above all to the development of young football players.
You say the team is in transition, probably that process is in the final stage if the goal is to be competitive in the European qualifiers.
It is a process and a period that we cannot skip. When we have ten young and new footballers in the team, a period is needed for them to adjust and create chemistry with the rest of the more experienced footballers. Matches in the Nations League, strong friendly matches and matches of a competitive nature those footballers must have in their legs to be competitive in the team and to reach our goal. The more experienced ones, S. Ristovski, Bardhi, Alioski, Trajkovski, Ademi, Dimitrievski, Velkovski, Musliu, Nestorovski, even Elmas help them in that, but it depends on the young footballers themselves whether and how useful they will be for the team. It is important to me that everyone supports them, and probably they themselves feel that they can be a significant link in the national team system.
In the last match against Azerbaijan, there was more talk about your disagreement with a spectator from the stands, and less about the large number of new footballers who got a chance in that match.
It’s not a matter of disagreement, but I just asked for respect for all of us, especially for football players. No matter what, they always give their best when they play for Macedonia. Sometimes we win, defeats will happen, but the most important thing is the support we have to give to the team.
And if you want to be specific about that situation, maybe my closure with our faithful supporter Martin, made me react in such a way. I know that he follows our matches with a lot of emotions, as we all do.
What is your message for the New Year, what do you wish for in 2023?
May God protect us, the footballers and all of us. I wish you good health and happy moments. Happy holidays everyone.