|12 June 2013|
|Ilievski's commitment to the F.Y.R. of Macedonia national team this summer will be music to the ears of his countrymen |
As EuroBasket 2013, the tournament where Vlado Ilievski will play his last game in an F.Y.R. of Macedonia jersey, approaches fast, there is a precious memory of his international career that he knows he will never forget.
It's not a specific moment we can all buy into or perceive in the same way as the players and staff on the squad that surprised everyone with their historical run to the semi-finals of EuroBasket 2011.
But it's an experience that every athlete aspires to every day of their career and only a select few get to taste it in their lives.
"After this great chemistry we had between us as a team in Lithuania, which was incredible, it was the welcoming of our fans," Ilievski explains, trying to define the feeling to fibaeurope.com.
"There were 100,000 people in [our capital city] Skopje waiting for us upon our return.
"They were waiting for hours at the airport, on the highway, they were everywhere along a 25 km route as we travelled on the bus to the city.
"To see those people so emotional, so excited, it was unbelievable.
"We thought that our people had never had that experience, that joy and pride.
"I think not only for me, but for the rest of [the] guys too, this will stay in our minds for the rest of their lives."
The veteran guard has no doubt every effort or small sacrifice he ever made was worth it, just to experience that unique moment.
"I would sure lose a lot of summers for this," he says laughing.
"Out of 24 teams at EuroBasket you can maybe think that there are only five or six who are favourites to win, so everyone else might say 'it's not worth losing my summer if I am not going to win'.
"But it's not like that, it's sport.
"If you keep your head up, you might get an unexpected good result."
|Ilievski will take the pressure on the chin come summer|
PRESSURE IS A FACT OF LIFE
One would say that following up on that unexpected good result at EuroBasket 2011 is precisely the assignment that F.Y.R. of Macedonia have been handed for September's EuroBasket in Slovenia.
"It's a different story, a different championship," Ilievski offers.
"No one is going to look at us like the underdogs now but of course it's possible to make a good result, I don't now if it will be the last four like in 2011.
"For me though what matters the most is that we play with the same intensity and heart that we did two years ago, especially when we know that a lot of our fans will come to Slovenia.
"We just don't want to disappoint them, and by that I don't mean the final position we take, but the way we play.
"The most important thing is to leave our heart on the floor in every game."
So there is no pressure then from the fans to repeat the success of 2011, or is it the view of a veteran who has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe that helps him handle it?
"You know what I think? In all the world, at every moment, there is some kind of pressure," the now 33-year-old guard states.
"There is no competition, especially high-level competition, where you come to represent somebody, your club or your country, and there is no pressure.
"So of course its going to be there, but we just have to give 100% of ourselves and I think at the end everyone is going to be satisfied with us."
BETTER WITHOUT THE NEIGHBOURS
F.Y.R. of Macedonia's first task at EuroBasket 2013 will be to get out of a First Round group that includes their neighbours Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Lithuania and Latvia.
"To tell you the truth, it's probably the toughest group and for sure I would have wished for some other opponents," Ilievski admits.
"Especially Serbia, who came in as 'last' in the group because they didn't have a good Qualification Round last summer, but we all know what Serbia represents in world basketball.
"But I am really excited, I think it's an exciting group between almost neighbours.
"There will be a lot of tension before the games and of course it's always good for the sport to have all these players very highly motivated.
"It's going to be fun and I'll try to enjoy it."
DO IT LIKE FOOTBALL
|Ilievski, pictured here in 2007, has had a long run with the F.Y.R of Macedonia national team, dating back to 1997 |
EuroBasket 2013 will be the last station in a long journey in the national team colours for Ilievski - a journey which started in 1997.
His first appearance with the senior team came at EuroBasket 1999, when he was still only 19 years-old, but after missing out on EuroBasket 2009 because of surgery, he had to wait a whole 12 years to get his second taste of that big event.
Despite a career that saw him suiting up for big clubs around Europe like Partizan Belgrade, Virtus Bologna, Montepaschi Siena, FC Barcelona or Anadolu Efes, the prospect of playing for the national team always held an intangible but strong attraction.
"There is a lot of issues involved here, it's not just patriotism," Ilievksi tries to point it.
"Somehow I feel we should look at football, you can see that even when they play friendly games all the best players go, it's something very important to them.
"I have to say that basketball is still not at that level, although of course there are examples where big players like [Dirk] Nowitzki or [Tony] Parker try to play every summer for their country.
"At the end of the day it comes down to the desire of the player to be there, after a long season, after injuries, we have to admire those players.
"[On the other hand] in sports you play, you retire, and after a couple of years nobody remembers you.
"So you have to take care of yourself, because nobody else will, it's a complex issue.
"If there is a good explanation for a player not coming [to the national team], then I understand, but if he goes around in circles just to avoid it, then it's a problem."
PERFECT STAGE FOR FINAL BOW
Earlier in the season, it looked probable that Ilievski would wave goodbye to the national team with the bitter taste of last summer's Pre-Olympic Tournament, where F.Y.R. Of Macedonia failed to earn a ticket to the London Olympics, as his last memory.
"After last summer I had some family issues that had to be resolved," he explained.
"The best option for me at that moment was to stop playing for the national team.
"But these issues are now, more or less, positively resolved and you know I live in Slovenia so I thought this was a great opportunity to finish my national team career where I live right now.
As it turned out, EuroBasket 2013 provides the ideal stage for his farewell to the international game.
"I played for Olimpija Ljubljana for many years, I have great friends here, so it would be a big weight if I didn't do this," Ilievski said.
"Of course I still enjoy playing for the national team; I cannot deny that, I miss all my team-mates, I hope we will come back together - everybody I hope - and try to make a good result here in Slovenia.
"This is for sure my last appearance with the national team, so I hope it ends well."