Pero Antic’s NBA odyssey has come to an end with the Macedonian signing for Turkish giants Fenerbahce Ulker. The first NBA player from the tiny Balkan nation, Antic spent his time largely as a back-up center for the Atlanta Hawks.
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?
In July 2013 it was announced that Pero Antic had signed for the Hawks becoming the first Macedonian basketball player in the NBA. That night I went to a cracked cement court in a village nestled in southern Macedonia to shoot some hoops – the news on everyone’s lips.
But no-one on that court could have envisaged of what was about to come.