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Faithful fans and a left-handed legend the keys for Macedonia’s success


When the draw for the European play-offs for the 2015 World Championship in Doha was taking place, the audience in Herning, Denmark, found its appetite for handball thrills whetted twice: first when the Germany vs. Poland duel was drawn and again when the lots decided that arch-rivals Greece and Macedonia would face-off on their way to Qatar.

Those qualification matches ended with two wins by the Macedonians, victories that qualified the nation for their fourth World Championship. In Qatar they will face some well-known faces from the Balkans, as they were drawn into the same group with Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria, Tunisia and Iran will be their other opponents.

"Our ambition is to make it to the quarter-finals," said Zhivko Mukaetov, President of the Macedonian Handball Federation, who was the official representative at July's draw event in Doha. "In our group Croatia is the favourite, but on the other hand we have five teams with certain qualities. Our ambition is to be in second or third place in the group." In his squad it is all about Kiril Lazarov, a national hero and best scorer ever at a single world championship (2009 in Croatia) and European championships (2012 in Serbia). When Lazarov scores, Macedonia is up; if he fails, they are down. Lazarov, the only player who has taken part in all five IHF Super Globe events in Doha since 2010 –and who has raised the trophy three times— was also twice the top scorer in the EHF Champions League.

Among his ambitions this winter?

"To take a step towards the 2016 Olympic Games at the 2015 World Championship in Doha." Croatian-born national team coach Ivica Obrvan, in charge since 2013 as the successor to Zvonko Shundovski, wants to use the recent handball hype in Macedonia stirred by the successful Skopje clubs Metalurg (home of most of the national team players) and Vardar, for further success at a major event. Hopes were high after their fifth place finish at the 2012 EHF EURO, only to be shattered in the Olympic qualification tournament, at the 2013 world championship and the 2014 EHF EURO. But with the return of their second best shooter Naumce Mojsovski, newcomer Renato Vugrinec (a former Slovenian) and as young players like Dejan Manaskov (son of legendary Pepi Manaskov) grow, an entire nation is beginning to feel that its Olympic aspirations are real, with Qatar 2015 a crucial step forward on that path.

"We deserve to make it to the eighth-finals in this group," said Mojsovski. "It is possible, because we have proven that we're able to make it. This is our third World Championship participation, and our generation has the experience to do so. We showed at the 2012 EHF EURO in Serbia and at the 2009 World Championship in Croatia that we have quality. In the previous tournaments we only missed by one or two goals in some crucial games to get ahead.

" After the successes of the national team and the two club sides - both quarter-finalists in the 2013/14 EHF Champions League season -handball is sport number one in this former Yugoslav Republic.

"After winning, all fans celebrate with us and we mourn together after defeats," said Mojsovksi. "So handball in Macedonia is a highly emotional thing. What Metalurg and Vardar now manage on the club level in the EHF Champions League is just a confirmation of the success we have as a sport." Mukaetov underlines the significance of the national team in his country:

"The interest of the young generations in the Macedonian team is continually growing. Ever since the World Cup in Croatia in 2009 when we achieved great success, the fifth place at the 2012 EHF EURO in Serbia, when the Macedonian gladiators were led by captain Kiril Lazarov, we recruited an audience that all athletes would wish for. The famous Macedonian fans faithfully follow our representatives all over the world and is an unrivaled support on the ground."