FYROM ready for a podium finish in Slovenia?

At Eurobasket, two years ago, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had only three accredited journalists covering the team in Lithuania.

When they had arrived at the Siemens Arena in Vilnius for the second round, I wondered over and tried to get some words out of them, not knowing if they spoke English or even wanted to talk.

The two reporters turned out to be very welcoming and excited to talk about FYR Macedonian basketball.

And rightly so – Eurobasket 2011 might have been won by the ever dominating Spanish – but the story out of Lithuania was the story of a team that wasn’t even expected to advance out of the group stages, but finished top of the pile, ahead of Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, the latter got eliminated.

When I spoke to the FYR Macedonian journalists, they were, of course pleased that the team had made it to the second round in Vilnius. My thoughts were that it would be their final stop before heading home.

They went on to beat Georgia 65-63 then astounded everyone by beating Slovenia 68-59 to seal a surprising spot into the final rounds … but the best was yet to come.

We had arrived in Kaunas, the site of the final rounds and FYR Macedonia’s opponents in the quarter-finals were the hosts Lithuania, who had been treated like rock stars in the previous 15 days of this tournament.

It is natural for the home team to get the bulk of the support and this was no different, in fact it was a frenzy, the fan zone outside the newly-built Zalgirio Arena was packed full of green, red and yellow. Cars were driving past with Lithuanian flags; honking their horns. The atmosphere was intense outside. Inside it was hotter than a summer’s day in Death Valley.  It reached fever pitch when the FYR Macedonians came out to warm-up.

The boos were ringing as 15,000 screaming Lithuanian fans let their feelings be known, as a small number of FYR Macedonians entered the arena amid heavy and over-protective security.

As the final minutes of the game ticked by, Bo McCalebb kept Macedonia in it, but it was a steal from Vojdan Stojanovski that led to a three from Vlado Ilievski with 11 seconds remaining that sealed the fate of the host nation. And properly announced FYR of Macedonia on the European stage.

Their brave run ended with a 92-80 loss to eventual winners Spain in the semi-finals but a fourth-placed finish at Eurobasket 2011 was beyond anything the team, nor the two reporters could ever dream of.

The celebrations in the capital Skopje were simply unforgettable. A reported 100,000 Macedonians welcomed the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after the tournament’s conclusion as they were treated as heroes.

A failed attempt to qualify for last year’s London Olympics later and the team ranked 34 in the world find themselves in a stronger position than they ever have been as we rapidly approach Eurobasket in Slovenia.

With team chemistry and even more experience than before plus the fact that a lot has happened for better with certain individuals, such as Pero Antic leaving Olympiacos for the Atlanta Hawks and Bo McCalebb reporting for national duty as the team’s naturalised player again, FYR Macedonia truly feel that they can land a podium spot in Slovenia.

And why not with all the NBA stars missing from this tournament? This team has kept its core from 2011, including 36-year-old Todor Gechevski.

On joining up with the rest of the squad, Gechevski said: “I need some time to find rhythm, but I will try my best to help the team as much as I can.

“Really soon, by the tournament in Germany [23-25 August] we will be able to see the real face of the team, the closest possible to what it will be at the Eurobasket.

“I believe in my team-mates and believe that everything will be fine.”

Granted the FYR Macedonians are in a tough “Baltic-style” group for Eurobasket, which includes Latvia, rivals Lithuania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro but they will fancy themselves past that bunch. I mean, who thought they would advance from the opening rounds, two years ago?

FYR of Macedonia will mean business in Slovenia, as they look to prove that their fourth-placed finish in Lithuania was no fluke.