"David can defeat Goliath," said midfielder Milovan Petrovikj, a nation rallying behind Rabotnicki as they bid to become the first Macedonian group stage contenders.
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Rabotnicki may not be the most popular team in FYR Macedonia, but they will have the whole nation behind them on Thursday when they play Rubin Kazan in their bid to become the first Macedonian side to get to the group stage of a major UEFA club competition.
The Macedonian Cup holders eliminated Estonia's Flora Tallinn, Latvia's Jelgava and – most impressively – Turkey's Trabzonspor to progress from the first qualifying round to the UEFA Europa League play-offs. Igor Angelovski's fearless squad captured the public imagination in Turkey two weeks ago, 20-year-old substitute Kire Markoski scoring a 112th-minute equaliser to secure a 2-1 aggregate win despite being a man down for 55 minutes.
"We received a lot of praise from people at Trabzonspor saying we were the better team and we deserved to go through," said 39-year-old Angelovski, a UEFA Pro licence student who is picking the team while Tomislav Franc officially takes charge of UEFA Europa League games. The plaudits at home were even more effusive; Rabotnicki's achievement was compared to Vardar's success in eliminating CSKA Moskva in qualifying for the 2003/04 UEFA Champions League. "We are all Rabotnicki" screamed one local front page.
"We can feel the whole country behind us in our attempt to achieve something no Macedonian club has managed before in Europe," Angelovski told UEFA.com. "Vardar, Shkëndija and Renova have all suffered early exits so we're not just playing for Rabotnicki but for the whole of Macedonian football. It is our duty to present our game in a good light."
Formed in 1937, Rabotnicki (literally: workers' club) were a second-tier outfit in the days of the former Yugoslavia, only emerging as a force on the domestic scene since the turn of the millennium, winning four Macedonian titles and four domestic cups in the last decade. A low-budget side determined to make the best of talented youngsters, they reached these play-offs in 2011, only to lose 9-1 on aggregate to Lazio.
Midfielder Milovan Petrovikj – alongside Stephan Vujcic, the sole other survivor from that Rabotnicki team – is undeterred by that experience, even though Blazhe Ilijoski, Dusko Trajcevski and Ivan Mitrov all miss the opening Skopje leg of the Rubin tie through injury or suspension. "Unlike four years ago, we are now a very compact side," the 25-year old playmaker told UEFA.com. "Rubin are not Lazio. Of course they are strong favourites, but God willing, and with our fans and the whole country behind us, we have something to believe in. We've already shown this season that David can defeat Goliath, and we believe we can do it again."