As the curtain fell on Goran Pandev’s international career, there was to be no worshipping testimonial, only the clattering of studs. Shimmying on the edge of the box, where a few wise flicks had already caused Netherlands’ defence surprising alarm, Daley Blind’s thunderous slide tackle cannoned into the 37-year-old like a small truck, the ball barely providing an airbag between boot and shin. The sheer force of the tackle flung a tiring Pandev across the floor to the tune of a long-lost high-pitch octave. By the time he rose back to his feet, Netherlands’ vibrant counter-attack were already celebrating Memphis Depay’s opening goal. For all football’s many luxuries, there is no escaping the fact that even its best fairy tales often have cruel endings.
It is a testament to Pandev’s glittering achievements - most notably a Champions League winner’s medal - that he was heralded a deity in North Macedonia long before he retired tonight. For a brief moment, too, his armoury of old tricks threatened to catch Netherlands’ defence off-guard - like a wily veteran boxer, storing up his energy, looking for a single devastating punch: a cunning backheel to confound Matthijs de Ligt, a dainty clip that so nearly set up an opening goal, only for the offside flag to narrowly deny Aleksandar Trajkovski.
But just as the truth of age revealed itself in North Macedonia’s creaking God, the Netherlands became ruthless iconoclasts. When such a vastly superior squad was colliding with a team already punching so far above their weight, the outcome was always inevitable.
For that reason, expectations should not become too lofty on the basis of this 3-0 victory. But while the Netherlands were considered something of a wildcard heading into the tournament, with the omens of Frank de Boer’s resume and a legacy of international frustration looming large, a perfect record in the group stage surely makes them strong contenders.
And while it is Georginio Wijnaldum, whose two goals saw him surpass Marco van Basten’s international goal tally, and Memphis Depay who will rightly draw the greatest plaudits, operating in seamless tandem, this free-flowing performance also highlighted the gluttony of talent for which Dutch academies have for so long been revered.
Making his first start for the national side, Ryan Gravenberch, perhaps, shoulders the greatest weight of expectation. The 19-year-old midfielder has spent his teenage years being linked to the world’s biggest clubs and been anointed as an inheritor to its best players - an unforgiving cycle of pressure that saddles the sport’s most prolific talents. It’s to Gravenberch’s credit that he has always handled those pitfalls with aplomb and, aside from the occasional flash of overeagerness, he hardly looked out of place at the heart of midfield, a heady concoction of technique, awareness, power and precision.
It might yet be too early for him to bed down a starting place, but for Donyell Malen, once of Arsenal, this performance provided a statement of intent. The forward is almost a polar opposite of Wout Weghorst, the physical but clinical target man De Boer has previously favoured, but Malen’s chemistry with Depay brings a new dimension to the Dutch attack - not least by pulling defenders’ attentions away from the talisman. That much was immediately evident tonight as Malen burst into space, teased defenders in footraces, and played an instrumental role in Depay’s opener. North Macedonia’s defence might have been close to a sitting target, but the 22-year-old’s directness will still ripple panic through the most accomplished centre-backs. For Jurrien Timber and Cody Gapko, too, there were cameos to inspire their next steps from the conveyor belt.
And so for North Macedonia, this was a night where one era ended at the height of emotion as Pandev, a hero for their ages, hailed as their king, departed to a guard of honour in the second half. And while his legacy will last as a trailblazer for a nation of underdogs, Netherlands are growing into a reputation as one of Euro 2020’s favourites. They might not yet have truly been tested, but with a blend of experienced leaders and bright young stars, their own era could well just be dawning.