Macedonian Football set to turn 21 – It’s time to mature

It was 21 years ago when Crveni Risovi walked out of the tunnel for the first time in a 4-1 victory against Slovenia in Kranj. At the helm of the side was Andon Dončevski who led FK Vardar to become the first and only Macedonian club to win the old Yugoslav top flight, before they were consequently stripped of the title. Darko Pančev, Europe’s 1991 golden boot winner, led that side alongside Red Star Belgrade European Championship winner, Ilija Najdoski. The future then looked bright compared to the bleak outlook of what has happened in the past two decades. Nearing its 21st birthday, Macedonian Football must blow out the candles and begin to mature up before it is lost amongst the world’s bottom tier football nations. Macedonia, along with Montenegro, are the only former Yugoslav Republics to have failed to qualify for either the FIFA World Cup Finals (Montenegro albeit qualified alongside Serbia for Germany 2006) or UEFA European Championships and are currently ranked 74th in the FIFA World Rankings. It is not brighter on the club side either – no Macedonian outfit has qualified following independence for the European Champions League. That continued last week as FK Rabotnicki were eliminated by Finnish side HJK Helsinki in the second stage of Champions League qualification. So the question lies, where to now for Macedonian football?

Europe 2016

In less than two months the national side begins their 2016 European Championship qualification campaign under Bosko Grujovski at the Estadi Ciutat de Valenica against a Spanish side looking for redemption after their humiliating group stage exit at the World Cup in Brazil. In an unusual sight for the past decade or so, Macedonia will be without stars Goran Pandev and Nikolče Noveski who have now retired from international football, arguably the nation’s two most talented players since the previously mentioned Pančev and Najdoski. Aside from Spain, Ukraine and Slovakia stand in Macedonia’s way to France 2016 – two sides that have qualified for a combine three major tournaments since their own independence. With Belarus and Luxembourg rounding out the group, this may be Macedonia’s best chance yet to participate in the finals of a major tournament. With a young side on hand, there is no doubt Macedonia will be underdogs to go through – and with all that is wrong with football in Macedonia, that possibility is a bright outlook on the real issues hurting the beautiful game in the landlocked nation.

Macedonian National Team Manager, Bosko Gjurovski. Image sourced from ekipa.mk

Macedonian National Team Manager, Bosko Gjurovski. Image sourced from ekipa.mk

Issues in it’s own backyard

Poor infrastructure, rumoured corruption and a beyond mediocre Football Federation has driven the sport behind the eight ball and on the brink of joining Europe’s weakest football nations. In a report published online by the Macedonian Football Federation, the Board of Directors found five club’s home stadiums do not have adequate stadiums to participate in the Prva Liga. Europa League qualifying contenders Metalurg Skopje, Bitola’s FK Pelister and three clubs based out of Tetovo, Shkendija, Renova and Teteks are those listed. FK Pelister, arguably Macedonia’s second most supported club, play out of the Stadion Tumbe Kafe. With the stadium not up to scratch, a viral campaign, Сакаме Стадион во Битола (We’re waiting for a Stadium in Bitola) has begun. Years of planning and proposals have been rejected and its now time that city gets a stadium their proud team can play out of.

With nothing yet promised, it is time to deliver and hand that city a stadium they deserve so that they can be proud of ‘The Green & Whites’ again. But with all that said – lets not forget the pressing issue of the poor economic structure and amount of unemployment of the nation.

Do Macedonians still love football?

Enough is enough with Macedonian football – it either needs to develop or be lost in the midst of the nations growing passion of Basketball and European Handball thanks to the likes of Pero Antic and Kiril Lazarov. Earlier in the year I wrote a piece on Pero Antic – Macedonia’s new global icon. There I stated “the country, struggling economically in the midst of the Balkans, has a new modern day hero”. That statement cannot be any truer as Antic help lead the Atalanta Hawks to the NBA Playoffs where they were one game away from eliminating top seeds the Indiana Pacers. Macedonia’s growing love affair with basketball grew significantly during EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania where the Лавови (Lions) finished in fourth place, defeating the then reigning European Champions Greece and hosts Lithuania along the way. They had even led eventual Champions, and arguably the World’s second best team behind the USA, Spain in the semi-final at half time. Following the tournament, 100 000 Macedonians flocked to Skopje’s City square to cheer the team back home – a scene never before seen in Macedonian Sport.

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Macedonian’s celebrate Eurobasket 2011 success – image sourced from CNN

A fifth place finish in the European Handball Championships at Serbia 2012 also won the hearts of Macedonian fans. Kiril Lazarov, the teams star player, broke the tournament record for the amount of goals scored by a single player – repeating his heroics from the World Championship in 2009. He currently holds the record at both World and European Championships. Clubs sides have also been successful with Metalurg and Vardar both making the final eight of the EHF Champions League this past season. For all these team-sporting achievements, Macedonia has not been able to celebrate its football side to the same degree. For football to remain in the heart of Macedonians, the Crveni Risovi must qualify for a major championship soon – for that to happen, Macedonia’s next generation must stand up like the ones before have failed to do so.

Babunski brothers to carry future load

The great hope in Macedonia’s up and coming crop is no real secret, the Babunski brothers have somewhat been labelled as the future saviours of the Men’s National football team. David Babunski, 20-years-old, currently of Barcelona B and Dorian Babunski, 17-years-old, a member of Real Madrid’s youth team ranks, provide the Macedonian National Team with a solid outlook for the future. The pair playing for the El Classico rivals must become staples of the national team for years to come. David Babunski, the oldest of the two, has already made five senior appearances and will be a key member of the France 2016 campaign. Dorian is expected to play for the National team in years to come, having already been impressive in youth teams in which he competes with players two of three years older than him. What does not help David Babunski and the National team is the rocky relationship beginning to form between the future star and the National Football Federation. Earlier this year Babunski lambasted the federation on social media questioning if the federation cares about improving the game in Macedonia.

Aside from the two brothers, Macedonia’s future crop of internationals does seem to have the potential of something special. Defenders Gjoko Zajkov and Aleksandar Damčevski recently secured big moves to Stade Rennais and NAC Breda respectively and are expected to be eased from National Youth sides to the National Team this campaign. It is still unclear what sort of side Bosko Grujovski may select for their first few qualifiers. Star man Agim Ibrahimi along with the experienced Tome Pačovski, Vanče Šikov and Goran Popov will be expected to led the side. While youngsters David Babunski, Damčevski and Zajkov along with Parma’s Stefan Ristovski and NK Zagreb’s Besart Abdurahimi should also be there. Macedonia may also give Arijan Ademi his debut after the Dinamo Zagreb defensive midfielder reportedly pledged to the Macedonia National team, despite making three friendly appearances for his country of birth Croatia. Ademi, first cousin of Agim Ibrahimi, will join Abdurahimi and Daniel Georgievski as overseas born national team players. It is no secret Macedonia is targeting players with Macedonian heritage overseas, having recently capped Australian born Philip Petreski in the Under-21 side and targeted fellow Australian and Newcastle Jets midfielder Ben Kantarovski.

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Dorian & David Babunski – The future of the National Team? Image sourced from http://estaticos.sport.es.

Euro 2020, Macedonia’s chance to show itself to Europe and the World

Last but not least, Macedonia has submitted interest in hosting Euro 2020. In a pan-European hosting format for the first time, 13 cities across 13 nations will host the event. Macedonia have submitted Skopje’s Philip II Arena for a standard package – meaning the hosting of three group stage matches and one round of 16 clash. However, due to the Stadium’s capacity of 33 400, the bid will need to be one of two exceptions to the 50 000 seat stadium rule. With no other former Yugoslav nation submitting a final bid, and only Romania and Bulgaria from the Balkans applying for hosting rights, Macedonia are with every chance of securing Euro 2020 games to Skopje which will be a boost to football and the nation’s economy. The likeliness of the tournament coming to Macedonia may be low due to the Stadium’s capacity, but Europe’s desire to enter new frontiers may be its biggest strength. Decisions of the thirteen cities will be made on September 19.

Feature image sourced from Offside.mk.

Originally published on previous blog