TBILISI (Reuters) - North Macedonia qualified for Euro 2020, the first-ever major tournament in the team's 27-year history, when a second-half goal from 37-year-old forward Goran Pandev gave them a 1-0 win away to Georgia in their playoff on Thursday.
Pandev, his country's most capped player and all-time leading scorer, flicked the ball home in the 56th minute of a tense, scrappy match played on a slippery pitch and was in tears as his team celebrated at the end.
Georgia, also hoping to qualify for their first major tournament, lost their composure after the goal and never threatened to get back into the game.
North Macedonia will face Austria, the Netherlands and Ukraine in Group C at Euro 2020, which has been postponed until June-July next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We will play for our nation's pride in the finals," said coach Igor Angelovski. "Pandev scored a beautiful goal to take us through."
North Macedonia qualified by what some regard as the back door, via the fourth division of UEFA's inaugural Nations League competition, but their players were not going to let that detract from their achievement.
"I am so happy. I've have played in a lot of games like this before and I think my experience helped the team to achieve this success," said Pandev.
With so much at stake, the match was predictably cagey and it took 28 minutes before either goalkeeper had to make a save when Georgian playmaker Tornike Okriashvili tested Stole Dimitrievski with a long-range shot.
Okriashvili also sent a shot swerving narrowly wide of the post as Georgia threatened to take control. But, with winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia missing after testing positive for COVID-19, they lacked invention in attack.
There were 29 fouls in a stop-start match and only four shots on target but the neatly-worked winning goal was in contrast to the general scrappiness.
Eljif Elmas broke down the left and slipped the ball to Ilija Nestorovski inside the penalty area and he found Pandev who flicked the ball passed Giorgi Loria for his 36th international goal.
North Macedonia had only one real scare when an intended cross by Okriashvili nearly flew into the top corner but Dimitrievski caught it under the bar and just managed to cling on.
(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond and Pritha Sarkar)