This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
At the turn of this century Macedonia entered a newly turbulent era. A small country in the heart of the Balkans, it had been a target of various outside interests throughout history, and now the war in Kosovo, its northern neighbour, spread into the north of Macedonia. As tensions grew between Macedonians and Albanians, few people in the country would have had time to think about football, and few would have guessed that those years of war would see the birth of the nation’s first football “diamond”, Elif Elmas.
In one of the most dangerous parts of the capital city, Skopje, in the multi-ethnic municipality of Cair in which Macedonians, Albanians, Turks and Roma lived side-by-side, Elmas was born on 24 September 1999 to a family of Turkish descent. His father, Xhevat, ran a sweet shop. Now, 20 years later, Elmas has become the figurehead of a North Macedonia team that has united the country as never before.
Through those unpredictable years Elif grew up with a love of football allied to a desire to help his father with the family business. Not many people know that Elif can make the most beautiful traditional Macedonian cakes. Had he not become a footballer, he almost certainly would have continued the family tradition in the sweet shop, but football won.
He started playing football aged seven in the neighbourhood club Fenerbahçe Tefejuz. Coincidentally, 11 years later he would sign for the Turkish giants Fenerbahçe. But before that he began to learn his trade at a football school run by Jovce Dzipunov, one of North Macedonia’s most famous players.
Igor Angelovski, now the head coach of the national team, was managing FC Rabotnicki at the time. Angelovski approached Elmas’s family and it was agreed the then 12-year-old would play for Rabotnicki’s youth teams. Fast-forward three years and the ability of the 15-year-old Elmas attracted the attention of Heerenveen in the Netherlands, and a preliminary contract was agreed for Elmas’s signature when he turned 18.
“There was some strange kind of magic in him,” Angelovski says. “An unbelievable energy, an X-factor at such young age that attracted everyone. An excellent reading of the game, a master of assists and a phenomenal finish.”
Elmas’s development accelerated under Angelovski’s tutelage. Aged only 16 years and six days, in September 2015, Elmas made his debut for Rabotnicki’s first team in the domestic top flight. A remarkable breakthrough season followed, featuring 33 appearances with six goals and seven assists. Elmas’s gem-like quality was becoming increasingly apparent and his footballing destiny was changing. As it turned out, the move to the Netherlands never happened.
In 2017 Elmas’s profile was raised even further when he travelled to the Under-21 European Championships in Poland – the greatest achievement by the national team at any level up to that point. The head coach, Bobi Milevski, built a talented team including players such as Enis Bardhi, Boban Nikolov, Visar Musliu and Darko Velkovski – all of whom are important members of the senior side that will play at Euro 2020. Aged 17, Elmas was the youngest player by far in Macedonia’s squad that travelled to the Under-21 tournament in Poland and he played in all three matches as they lost to Spain and Portugal and drew 2-2 with Serbia.
Before he even left for Poland, Elmas was approached by Turkey’s head coach, Fatih Terim, who asked the young player to declare for that country instead. Elmas turned down Terim’s offer and that decision seemed to be justified soon after the Under-21 tournament when Angelovski called him up to the senior squad for a World Cup qualifier against Spain in Skopje.
Following Elmas’s displays in Poland, clubs of the calibre of Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Fenerbahçe had entered the race to sign him. Fenerbahçe won it, with Rabotnicki paid €300,000 in compensation. Pero Antic, the first Macedonian basketballer to play in the NBA and then with Fenerbahçe, helped broker the deal, with Elmas signing a five-year contract. Elmas means “diamond” in Turkish and Fenerbahçe had their precious signing.
Fast-forward another two years, and Elmas and his family faced another difficult decision on the next move. His burgeoning reputation had seen a queue of clubs form, all keen for his signature, now including Juventus, Internazionale, Napoli and Tottenham as well as Manchester City. A deal was struck with Internazionale – only for it to be ditched when Antonio Conte took over as manager at the Milanese club.
Offers from Napoli, Tottenham and Manchester City remained on the table with Elmas and his family again having a choice to make. Nikola Gjosevski, Elmas’s agent, explains how it unfolded: “We were in a final meeting with Fenerbahçe in Istanbul, and together we were considering which offer to accept. Then, we unexpectedly received a call from Carlo Ancelotti, the charismatic Napoli manager [now at Everton], who asked to speak directly with Elif. After this conversation Elif had made up his mind. He said to us: ‘I am going to Napoli.’
Napoli paid a fee of €16m to Fenerbahce, agreeing an annual salary of €1.3m with Elmas. The rest is history. Via a play-off from the fourth tier of the inaugural Nations League, Macedonia secured a place at Euro 2020, their first qualification for a major tournament, and Elmas has become an indispensable part of the national team.
At the end of March, Elmas scored the most important goal in his career. Macedonia traveled to Germany for a World Cup qualifer, sensationally winning 2-1 in Duisburg for one of the biggest upsets in the history of the German football – perhaps in the history of international football. Elmas was the hero for Macedonia, scoring the winner in the 84th minute.
“To be a scorer against the great Germany and to win this match, this is something amazing. This is a huge motive before the beginning of the Euro 2020”, Elmas said.
Perhaps the 21-year-old Elmas is a long way from reaching the heights of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. But this summer he will have the perfect stage to demonstrate his quality against the elite of European football, with Macedonia pitted against the Netherlands, Ukraine and Austria in Group C. Come the summer, those opponents will know much more about the diamond of North Macedonia.
Vladimir Bulatovic writes for Ekipa.
Follow him on Twitter @BULI257.
For a tactical guide of North Macedonia click here.