Hailing from the smallest settlement in the Macedonian top flight, FK Turnovo will embark upon the biggest adventure in their 63-year history when they make their European debut on Thursday.
From a village, population 500, in the south-east of the Balkan country, Turnovo had spent its existence in the lower divisions until they won promotion to the Prva Liga in 2008. Following a 2011/12 season in which they managed to survive relegation only via a play-off, many expected the side, comprised mainly of local talent, to struggle again last term.
Turnovo made light of such doom-laden predications. Instead they achieved their first top-three finish, ending the campaign with the fewest defeats – they would have won the title had they beaten eventual champions FK Vardar on the final day; they lost 5-0. Their reward for such a stellar campaign is a UEFA Europa League first qualifying round tie against Lithuania's FK Sūduva.
"This is the club's biggest game and also the first European match for most of us, the players, so it's like a final," Turnovo captain and goalkeeper Stojan Dimovski told UEFA.com ahead of the first leg in Marijampole.
With an average age of 24, Turnovo lack experience, but they are determined to demonstrate the quality that enabled them to defy the odds last season. "We've been playing together for a couple of years now and we know each other pretty well," added Dimovski. "Ahead of us is a difficult task; we know our opponents have been playing continuously in European competition for many years, but we are also aware of our qualities."
Chief among them are Dejan Blazhevski and Zoran Baldovaliev, the strike pairing who scored 34 of Turnovo's 49 league goals in 2012/13. "The Lithuanian team have a small advantage because lots of their players have experience in Europe," said Baldovaliev, Turnovo's most-capped player with 11 appearances for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. "However, we're all highly motivated, our preparations were good and we hope we can progress to the next round."
For Turnovo president Orce Todorov, there is "no secret to our success". He added: "It's a result of the hard work over many years by everyone involved at the club. We're a small club with a modest budget, but we're strong as a group and very close to one another."
Should Turnovo overcome Sūduva, a glamour tie awaits against Croatia's HNK Hajduk Split. "When we learned of the draw, I told my players that we have a chance to play against one of the biggest clubs in the former Yugoslavia and my favourite team since I was a kid," said Todorov.
"It will be amazing if we face Hajduk. I believe the players will succeed in achieving that and will pen another chapter in our history." There have been no problems with writers' block in Turnovo over the past 12 months.
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