The Macedonian football team was one step away from qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar this year. We have defeated the current European Champion Italy on an away match, yet despite the good play, we did not have the strength and we lacked a little bit of sports luck for another away victory against Portugal. The overall good impression we have made in the qualifications, and especially in the qualifier play-offs, has on one hand caused a dose of unreal disappointment among the public that we might have been able to be part of the football elite, but on the other hand it also makes us believe that we can do even better in near future.
all photos by FFM
In the eve of the Victory Day against Fascism we are talking with the man who has the mind of a winner, the man who is to be held “responsible” for the renaissance in the Macedonian national football, the man who wrote history with the first ever qualification of any Macedonian national team at a big championship (U21 European Championship in Poland in 2017), the man who continues to leave his mark in the Macedonia’s national team as a head coach, Mr. Blagoja Milevski.
He welcomed us in his office at FFM’s headquarters. After we drank the coffee and had a little chat, we began the interview with many questions, half of them made in cooperation with our former member who is now part of Kajgana media.
Mr. Milevski could we have made that final step?
– Yes, we could! If we did not think that we could do it, we would not have been doing this job in the first place, at least not us as coaching staff. After all that was happening on the field, definitely yes – we could have done it.
In both World Cup play-offs you used four out of the possible five substitutions. Why that last substitution was not used? Especially against Portugal, did not we need one more substitute in order to try to get back in the game when we were 2:0 down? Why we were not braver in the final 25 minutes after we were behind by two goals?
– In order to change a game flow you must have quality that can bring you such a change. And if you do not have that kind of a player who is a game changer, I do not see a possibility for doing anything to make that change – for that level of play. As we say – it would be like going against a wall with your head. When play a World Cup final play-off against a national team compiled of great players, I do not really see a reason why I should go against the wall with my head. But if you ask if we needed that kind of a change – yes, when you are 2:0 down, of course that there is a need for such a change.
We lost the match a bit naively due to our own mistakes (Ristovski and Bardhi). For how long we will keep allowing clumsy mistakes, or if we can say so at moments, irresponsibility in our game, especially if we know that the big teams almost always score on such mistakes?
– The mistakes are part of the game. Sometimes you get punished, others not. The problem is not only in the mistakes that you point out, but everything that follows on the field after a mistake occurs, such as the coverage of our own space in the continuation of the action. Our players were tactically and psychologically prepared to the maximum , so none in this world can ask for more of what they have done. I have always been striving towards perfection, and it would have been perfect if we had qualified for the World Cup. However, regardless of the outcome, I am satisfied with the approach and the way my players played both play-off matches.
The public was somewhat surprised that Ilija Nestorovski was not summoned for the play-offs. True he is not playing in Udinese, but he might have contributed for the team’s atmosphere?
– I do not see a reason why I should summon players just because of a locker room atmosphere, players that I would not be using on the field, especially since I had summoned attackers who were in good shape and had playing time in their clubs, unlike Nestorovski. If things change in the future, the door in the national team is open for him and for anyone else that will be in a similar position.
Do you think that if Goran Pandev was in the team the outcome of the final play-off could have been different? Maybe our style of play as well?
– Goran Pandev is the best player in the history of the Macedonian football and he ended his national career at the European Championship last year. He repeated on several occasions, that he will not go against his word and that that is his final decision. Honestly, I do not think that his presence would have changed anything in the play-offs. Imagine if both Pandev and Nestorovski were in the team and we lost against Italy in the play-off. In that case these questions would have been different. It is easy to be a general after battle. All those hypothetical situations can only create confusion. The play-offs are behind us and we are now focused on the preparations for the Nations League.
It is for the first time that FIFA adopted such a format for the UEFA play-offs. It was pretty unfair for the non-seeded teams and it was most unfair for Macedonia having to play away games against two giants and at the end did not reach Qatar even after eliminating the EURO champions. What are your thoughts about the format?
– When you find yourself to be among the 20 best national teams in Europe, 10 of which are in the play-offs and two that joined through the Nations League, meaning that I put them aside, based on performances of those teams during the qualifiers, for me it was all the same who we would have ended up against in the play-off draw. Why? Because in order to reach the play-offs you must play 10 matches. Any national team that demonstrated that level of performance to be among those 10 – you cannot say that it is a weak team. It means that it has quality for a World Cup. When it comes to the format, with the draw being as it was, for me it is not good, because we finished being 2nd in a group with Germany, Romania, Iceland, Armenia, played against a four-time WC winner and current European champions, we managed to defeat them – but we do not go to the World Cup. That is de facto ungrateful, mainly for the players. To show that kind of performances, to defeat the holding European champion and not to have a place at the World Cup – it is such a waste for the players and also for us as a Federation. After that play-off, I do not think it would have made difference, if we had played at home, but at least we would have been less tired and the entire atmosphere around the match would have been different if after Italy we played at home. This Macedonia showed that can play the same football home and away, I am speaking for the tactical structure, but we would have had an extra day for rest. In moments like that when in three days you play against a former European champion and a team that according to the individual quality is maybe among the top three in the world, of course that it is not ok, from a sports point of view, so that we could have some kind of fair-play.
What do you think about FIFA’s decision not to revoke the yellow cards for the opening play-off? Would we have played differently, if we had Elmas and Kostadinov against Italy?
– That was also not all right. In my opinion, it is fair that everyone has the same starting point, that there should have been some kind of a balance in that first match. I am not talking about red cards, but yellow cards are integral part of the matches and are shown for different reasons. Anyway, no, I do not think that it would have changed anything drastically.
Our next game is in the Nations League. We open against Bulgaria away, in a moment when the political relations between the two neighbors are at the worst level since the WW2 and the relations between the two nations also are not good due to the politics. Do you think that there will be some kind of psychological problem for our players on the pitch in Razgrad as most probably they will get constant booing from the Bulgarian fans? Can this match be decisive regarding the final group ranking?
– I never think in that direction, I never connect any sports event with the current political developments or political relations between two states, even less between two nations. There can be a negative atmosphere at the stadium, but we had that when we played in front of 30 thousand Italians or 50 thousand Portuguese. The players of both teams mentally disconnect of such things when they are on the field, so I do not see any kind of special pressure that would put a barrier or would limit our playing capabilities in any way, either for us or for the opponents. This match is only the first, there are many more until the end, so it will not decide anything. These matches will be part of what we are already doing – preparations for the 2024 EURO qualifiers and beyond. I see how the team will look after 2025 as well, no matter if I will stay as a coach or not, because the national team will continue to play after me.
There was a rumor that Ukraine sent a request for a friendly match in Skopje at the end of May.
– I have not gotten such a proposal and I am not planning a friendly because there is no space in the calendar. We are facing a situation when the leagues of our players will finish on different dates. We will have problems balancing the workload of the players, and the match against Bulgaria is already on 2 of June. I only hope that everyone stays healthy and capable to respond to my call. It remains unknown who and how much will play. I will have to rotate the players because we have four matches, it is the season end. We also have two away matches for which we will have problems with the flights.
What has inspired you to become a coach? Was there any turning point that made you take this profession?
– When I was playing I was learning from the coaches, from some how things should be done, from others how things should not be done. I am speaking about the way of working of all those who coached me. That helps me now and it was one of the reasons why I started coaching. On the other hand, I now learn much from the players, actually much more. Probably the status of the players when I was playing and from what I was seeing while working with the coaches had inspired me in some way to start thinking about working with a team of players. There are many things I have accepted as positive, but there are also those negative, which are useful today as well. There is nothing special that made me become a coach, it just happened with the time passing by. I stopped playing when I was 39 years old in 2010, and since 2007 or 2008 I started taking those coaching licenses. So, when I decided to become a coach, I was an active professional player for 2-3 years.
What the coach of the Macedonian national team does in his free time? Any hobbies?
– I spend part of the free time with my dogs. Actually, the biggest part of the free time I spend with them. I have herding dogs from the breed Presa Canario, a Canary mastiff from the Canary Islands. Of, course, I also play 6-a-side football with my friends, as well as tennis, so one can say that these are some kinds of hobbies for me.
You will of course watch the World Cup in Qatar. Who according to you is the favorite to claim the trophy? If we had not eliminated Italy, could they have been among the favorites?
– That is a very difficult question. It is hard to name one favorite. I would go with Brazil, Germany and France. Italy has a serious quality, as a team plays great, so they have both individual and team quality. They probably would have been on the shortlist.
We see less players from the domestic league in the national team. Last time it was only the second reserve goalkeeper. Can the Federation do something to help increase the quality of the domestic league?
– FFM cannot interfere in the work of the clubs. Yes, we as Federation recruit players in the national team from the clubs. But, it is not up to us why the club football quality is at this level. The clubs must ask themselves what are the reasons. It is not that I as national team coach, or the Federation, have that impression, but just take in consideration the most recent results in the European cups where, if I am not mistaken, we had one of the worst scores. We now have Gibraltar in the Nations League group who had a club in the group stage of the UEFA Europa Conference League. So, everyone is advancing. I would be the happiest if the base for the national team is from the domestic league. That was the case when we went to the 2017 U21 EURO with the U21 national team. It is not like I do not want to see the quality, but what the European football is requesting at the moment as quality or potential that a player must have, is something that we do not have right now. I would be extremely happy if that changes very soon. It would make my job easier when it comes to selecting players, I would have more options, more quality players adequate to respond to what the competition in Europe requests. Tomorrow, I could summon five or even ten players from the domestic league, but what would the national team gain from that? What the European football requests for one to be competitive at this moment, I collect this information during the matches. I am choosing the players according to that. If a player has played for the national team three or four years ago, it does not mean that he must play now, as well. Maybe back than he was good, but today he might not be. Maybe today we are looking for other characteristics.
– Everyone has its own football philosophy, what he needs, what kind of characteristics a midfielder must have, or attacker or defender, according to what he needs so he can match the others. I will repeat as a conclusion all that Macedonia demonstrated in the qualifications and especially in the play-offs, no matter if someone likes it or not, we showed that we can be a match even for the best. The field is the place where everything is measured, not the names of the players but their on-field performances. At least that is the case within my coaching team and it will remain to be until we are in charge of the national team.
As a player you were few times called up in the national team and according to the clubs you played for and the way you played, you probably deserved more calls in the national team. Do you have any regrets that you have never got a real chance?
– No. Maybe according to what I had shown on the field in the clubs I had played here and abroad – I deserved more calls, especially while I was playing at Maribor and Ashdod. If how one played or the field performance were valued, or the league I played in, in that case definitely I deserved more, but what can we do. I was playing in the Champions League and in the UEFA Cup with Maribor and I was man of the match and best performing player according to the German media against Borussia Dortmund, but in that period I did not receive a call in the national team. However, all that is in the past and I do not have regrets because everything I did in my club career was my choice. Maybe if I should not have left Zvezda so early, maybe I should have waited my chance there.
Recently there were rumors that you will resign from the national team in order to take a job at Crvena zvezda.
– Those stories came out from Serbian media. Neither I have not spoken to anyone personally, nor have I had any negotiations. I have an active contract with FFM and all my activities are focused on what is next with the national team of Macedonia.
Almost throughout your entire coaching career there is some kind of disagreement and suspicion towards your coaching qualities. That was the case when you were at Vardar, at the U21 national team and after your first matches in the senior national team. To all those disagreements you have responded with victories: two titles with Vardar, historic result of a Macedonian national football team by qualifying at U21 EURO, play-off qualifiers for the World Cup with the senior national team and a win over the current European Champions. How do you cope with all this and what kept you motivated to keep going forward?
– Things like that have always been present and will continue to be, but honestly – it never really touched me because I am used to strive towards the biggest goals. On that path, the human factor, or more precisely the mutual respect and the character of those with whom I work come first. Firstly and mostly, I refer to the players as well as the coaching team. Beyond that, there is no bigger picture, it does not exist. For many that is something that bothers them, for those for whom non-football things come first. I do not see any other reason. I can not see why it would be a problem to anyone if Macedonia plays at a EURO, if comes a step away from qualifying for the World Cup, if we defeat Italy, or if we match Portugal. There have been doubts and there will be in the future, but I am here and I cannot do anything but keep going on ahead and not let those foes to misdirect me.
You are known as a person who does not allow meddling into his work by any board members, no matter if it is a club or a federation. There is also an impression that the agents go around you when it comes to pulling strings for some players. Did you have any pressure in your career regarding these things? Were there attempts someone else to make your team and would you resign if something like that happens?
– I still have not found myself in a situation to have to resign because my approach is such that the human values and characters come first. All those persons are part of football, not just here but everywhere in the world. I will repeat, the way I and my coaching staff function for years is such that I always express my opinion, no matter if someone finds it pleasant or unpleasant and no matter if it is player, a football worker or board member – they will hear what I think. Maybe that directness is what makes that atmosphere around me and my team of co-workers, that I do not leave space for improvisations.
What is your opinion on naturalization?
– If a players posses such a quality that would bring the quality of the national team to a higher level – in that case I approve it.
What is your biggest virtue, what are your flaws, and do you hold grudges?
– Grudges no, never. In my case, my biggest virtue or flaw can be a same thing – honesty. Honesty is both my virtue and my flaw.
What about EURO 2024? The draw for the qualifications has not taken place yet, but still, are you considering that event?
– We are working in that direction. We are working to be competitive and to try and write a new history.
We thank Mr. Milevski for his hospitality and time and we wish him all the best in the upcoming matches and another participation at a major tournament.