Darko Pancev earned Europe's top scoring and club prizes in 1991 before blazing a trail to Italy and he is now considered FYROM's greatest player.
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To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. FYROM chose Darko Pancev as their Golden Player.
Not many Macedonian players have left their mark on the game in recent years, so Darko Pancev, the legendary striker who began his career with FK Vardar, stands out like a beacon.
As a player with FK Crvena zvezda, Pancev won the 1990/91 European Champion Clubs' Cup and scored in the European/South American Cup victory over Chile's CSD Colo Colo. In fact, he was the continent's top marksman that year with 34 goals.
Nor was this Pancev's first taste of success. As a 21-year-old, he was a key figure in the talented Vardar team that won the 1986/87 Yugoslavian championship and appeared in the 1987/88 European Cup, even if they eventually lost their title when FK Partizan, who had been deducted six points in a match-fixing scandal involving a dozen clubs, won an appeal.
Of his early days with the Skopje-based side, Pancev said: "I took up football when I was 11, playing for Vardar's youth teams. We managed to win the Yugoslavian youth cup. Then I made my debut for the first team and scored my first senior goal against FK Željeznicar."
His good form for Vardar – where he scored 132 goals in 207 matches – soon had many of the big clubs from the former Yugoslavia interested in signing him. Pancev decided to join Crvena zvezda, and over the next four years the Belgrade outfit reached previously unscaled heights.
Scoring the winning penalty in the shoot-out victory against Olympique de Marseille in the European Cup final in Bari capped probably Pancev's best performance in the red and white of Crvena zvezda. The subsequent triumph over Colo Colo in Tokyo represented the crowning glory for that team.
"I cannot say which trophy is my favourite. I will always remember the title win with Vardar, the three title triumphs with Crvena zvezda, and the victories in Bari and Tokyo. My first goals for Vardar and for the Macedonian national side are also very dear to me," said Pancev, who registered 116 goals in 141 games for Crvena zvezda.
Pancev became the first Macedonian to play in Italy's Serie A when he left Belgrade for FC Internazionale Milano in 1992. He spent two and a half seasons at San Siro, before further spells at VfB Leipzig, Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Sion.
After independence in 1991, Pancev played for the newly-formed Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia national side, making six appearances and scoring one goal to add to his tally of 17 for Yugoslavia. "My appearances for the Macedonian national team are very important to me. It was an honour for me, and others who were nearing the end of their careers, to play for our country," he said.
Nicknamed 'the Cobra', he struck more than 300 goals in official games during his career, 171 of them in the former Yugoslavia – making him that league's second-highest scorer of all time behind Slobodan Santrač. He also reached the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy in the colours of Yugoslavia, scoring twice in a first-round win over the United Arab Emirates.
Pancev spoke with optimism about his country's footballing future at the time of his Golden Player nomination. "There have always been, and will always be, talented players in FYROM," he said. "There are some organisational problems, but when these are overcome and the right people are in the right jobs, then I believe Macedonian football will continue to improve."
Today, he owns a popular cafe in Skopje and its name, Devetka, should surprise nobody – it means nine, the number he wore on his shirt when terrorising defences in his glory days at Vardar and Crvena zvezda. Those days were remembered when he was the guest of honour at a special gala in Skopje in August 2006 to celebrate his Golden Shoe achievement of 1990/91.
Strange as it seems, he had not received his prize until then, the shoe having collected dust in a box for more than a decade. Michel Platini, the future UEFA President, was the man who finally presented him with the shoe – a case of better late than never for Macedonia's greatest goalscorer.
Last updated: 11 February 2011