By Paul Nilsen
|'This could already be the biggest sporting achievement of a lifetime in the country' says F.Y.R. of Macedonia big man Predrag Samardziski |
Having already reserved a place in EuroBasket history by reaching the Semi-Finals, F.Y.R. of Macedonia now stand on the verge of sporting immortality in their homeland.
National hero status is assured no matter what happens in the wake of their stunning run to the last four of the competition, and pending participation at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year.
After beating the hosts and assuming the role of ultimate party poopers, they find themselves with one foot already in an entirely new stratosphere of basketball acclaim.
Yet, as many writers around the globe reached out for headlines hinting at the biggest shock, surprise (and any word remotely relating to those two aspects) in EuroBasket history, nothing could be further from the truth.
From a basketball tradition perspective, these headlines do stand up of course. But, from an on-court perspective, they simply don't. The ability of F.Y.R. of Macedonia to continue winning games and reach the latter stages is no surprise to anybody who has followed them closely.
For they are simple basketball personified. Time and time again, they have done what they do best by sticking to their game plan, controlling the tempo, wearing teams down and executing down the stretch.
They are a well-coached team who maximise every last drop of their limited resource within a framework of extraordinary chemistry and mental toughness, refusing to allow games to drift away from them at any stage. Their approach mocks some of the more illustrious nations who quite literally possess twice the talent (if not more) but can only muster half the application.
Center Predrag Samardziski gave a wonderful insight into the unwavering bond the players have with each other after the victory against Lithuania.
When asked what it felt like to finally win a game, at the third attempt, without injured captain Todor Gechevski he just smiled and said: "This was not our first win without him, this was simply our first win for him."
|Not one, not two, but three injuries was what stopped Todor Gechevski, the player who best embodies the spirit of the team, from playing in the quarter-final|
"He is the hero. People will talk about Bo McCalebb or Pero Antic but he is our hero - believe me," the center explained.
Now they find themselves with not one, but two bites at the medal cherry. As they dare to dream of what they stand to gain should they either beat Spain or win a subsequent bronze medal game, Samardziski is adamant it will be business as usual.
"Now we are so close to a medal and the Olympics, it would be wrong for us to change our mentality and approach to the games.
"We have been successful because we do the same thing each game and try to remain calm," he added.
Having placed themselves on the elite basketball map in emphatic fashion by crushing the hopes and aspirations of an expectant host nation, they now truly want their name up in lights in a big way - by delivering a killer blow to star laden Spain.
Whatever happens, F.Y.R. of Macedonia will be playing on Sunday, the final day of Eurobasket 2011 and not surprisingly, Samardziski is confident there has been no bigger achievement in the sporting history of his country.
"I really can't think of anything at all which has been anything like this during the last twenty years.
"This could already be the biggest sporting achievement of a lifetime for everyone back home.
"You never know when success is going to happen and maybe it will be the biggest thing to happen for the next twenty or thirty years but I hope I am wrong.
"We are determined to make the Olympics next year and of course do the same at the EuroBasket in Slovenia in two years.
"We want to continue making everyone proud of us and making basketball an even bigger sport in our country."
--- VIDEO: FYR OF MACEDONIA CELEBRATING THEIR QUARTER-FINAL WIN ---
Even if they are likely to find Spain too tough a nut to crack, it's something that has been said so many times before ahead of F.Y.R. of Macedonia games.
Yet they have almost always found a way to win. It's taken overtime in one game and a buzzer beating miracle shot in another to stop them.
Last time out against Lithuania, they had to defeat an entire basketball nation. This time around, it's only a team -albeit the defending EuroBasket champions and their array of stellar talent.