Artim Sakiri is one of the travelling band of footballers who wake up every morning and echo the shipwrecked Viola's opening line in Twelfth Night: "What country, friends, is this?" The appropriate Shakespearean response, "Illyria," would not have been far off the mark in his earliest days as a midfielder with Vardar Skopje and Macedonia.
Now the answer is the Black Country, where he is settling in with West Bromwich Albion, after previously pitching up in Sweden (winning a championship medal alongside Fredrik Ljungberg at Halmstad), Germany, Slovenia, Turkey and Bulgaria. The 29- year-old's achievements along the way have made him a proud country's most famous sportsman, a position cemented last autumn as the outstanding individual in the 2-2 draw against England at Southampton.
As well as embarrassing David Seaman with the first Macedonian goal, he helped create the second, might have scored a third himself and even lured David Beckham into a yellow card for attempting to impede his long throws.
Given his high regard for English football, Sakiri regards that as the best result of his 54 international appearances. "In the dressing room afterwards it was unbelievable," he recalled at The Hawthorns last week. "We believed we could do something like this, get a good result. Some people, some journalists and supporters, said we would lose 5-0 or 6-0, but it happened.
"At home, people were watching television on big screens in the street - there were Muslims, Christians, Albanians, all watching together, and it united the whole country. Now when I go home, I have many big friends. But I am a football player, not an ambassador."
Following yesterday's First Division match at Derby, he is on his way home again, to be reunited with his wife and baby daughter and also to unite the nation again for England's critical game on Saturday. But he gives the impression of not enjoying the notion of celebrity: "I don't want to talk about this," is the stock response to questions about Beckham, the break-up of Yugoslavia, or crowd trouble in Turkey during Macedonia's unlucky 3-2 defeat there two months ago.
He even sounds a little uncomfortable talking about the corner kick that swirled over Seaman's head at St Mary's to have his countrymen dancing in the streets of Skopje. It was not, however, a fluke, and turns out to be something he had already done in club football, for Vardar four years ago. First Division goalkeepers, David James above all, should be forearmed - even if four arms would not have been enough to help Seaman.
Some of their number have already discovered that the floating flag-kick is not his only weapon: Burnley's Brian Jensen was beaten by a fearsome 30-yarder in Albion's first home game of the season. Fourteen goals from 54 internationals is an impressive striking rate for a midfielder playing for one of Europe's weaker sides.
It was Macedonia's lowly status that prevented Bolton and, initially, West Brom-wich, securing a work permit when England was first mooted as his next port of call (he had already had a trial at Aberdeen). Turned down twice, Albion, uniquely, were granted a second appeal in the summer, which finally succeeded. "Artim is doing well, but he will need time to settle in," said his club manager, Gary Megson. "English football is different to the rest of Europe, and he is still coming to terms with that."
So just as English cricket helps to nurture the overseas players who then put the skids under it in Test matches, the Nationwide League has been sharpening the skills of Macedonia's captain. If reluctant to bite the hand that feeds him, he is confident of giving it a little nip at least on Saturday: "Can we win? Why not? They are men, we are men."Reuse content