Eljif Elmas helps prove North Macedonia are more than Group C whipping boys

UEFA’s decision to expand the European Championship to 24 teams in 2016 was controversial.

There was accusations that the move would cheapen the thrill of qualifying for the tournament, as well as leading to sterile group stage matches where lesser teams played to be one of the four best third-placed sides.

A lot of this criticism is valid, however, the expanded competition is not without its merits. By opening up the Euros to more teams, smaller nations long deprived of tournament football can have their moment in the sun.

No team encapsulates the good and bad of the new format more than North Macedonia. Finishing third in their initial qualifying group, behind Austria and Poland, they were afforded a second chance of progression via the Nations League. Earning this reprieve was not challenging – they had to top a group featuring Armenia, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein.

Placed into Path D of the playoffs, they only had to beat Kosovo – a FIFA nation since just 2013 – and lowly Georgia to reach their first ever European Championship. For some this painfully easy route to the competition is evidence of the Euros degradation.

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However, North Macedonia’s display against Austria in their Euro 2020 opener was undeniable evidence of the advantages of lowering the bar for qualification.

There was a lot to get excited about during this game, which was played at a ruthless intensity with plenty of needle. Goran Pandev’s first-half equaliser was particularly joyous as the long receding 37-year-old had postponed his own retirement for one last shot of playing in a major tournament. Just as a quick aside, Pandev had scored two international goals before Jude Bellingham was even born.

Although the veteran’s moment of triumph will steal most of the headlines, Eljif Elmas’ display is also worthy of credit. There is something so seductive about the 21-year-old Napoli midfielder. Red-faced with his jet black hair contained by an Alice band, the youngster showed no sign of nerves in what was the biggest game of his career so far.

Prancing between the lines with a carefree exuberance, he misplaced just two of his 32 passes all game. These were not Harry Winks-esque backwards passes to his centre-backs either. Elmas was refreshingly arrogant despite his side’s underdog status, receiving the ball in tight areas and pirouetting around the Austrian press with ease.

He did his best work when linking up with the velvety Enis Bardhi – a similarly accomplished technician whose presence makes it even easier for neutrals to fall for these lovable underdogs.

Elmas so nearly had a decisive impact in the second half as well. With the scores level he hit a perfectly weighted through-ball on the spin that Boban Nikolov came painfully close to finishing off. North Macedonia would come to rue this close shave, with Austria rallying to a 3-1 victory soon after.

The scoreline may suggest a comfortable win for Austria but this was far from the case. North Macedonia put up much more than a brave fright in their first ever game at a major tournament. Instead, they definitively proved that they belong at the competition, with Elmas cementing his position as one to watch over the next ten days at least.