The State of North Macedonia Club Football
May 22, 2019
Most Championships: Vardar, 10
Last 5 Winners: Shkendija (18/19, 17/18), Vardar (16/17, 15/16, 14/15)
UEFA Ranking: 34th
Highest Ranked Club: Shkendija, 178th
Since the Europa League was rebranded, only Vardar have reached an EL or CL group stage. Do Macedonian fans expect more?
No is the simple answer. Expectations have to be realistic. Given the conditions in the domestic league (awful infrastructure, many players often not paid on time or at all in some cases, lack of quality competition), it is frankly a miracle that Vardar even managed to reach the group stages.
Looking back, Vardar qualifying became their undoing. After that happened, many of their key players chose to transfer out, and suddenly there was no money, even though the team got millions for reaching the group stages.
UEFA recently threatened Vardar with a ban of 2 years if players, who had not been paid, did not receive the money owed to them. Vardar is significantly weakened at present time compared to the team they had when they qualified.
Two of their now former players, who were and are still NT regulars, went to your country of Hungary. I am talking about Stefan Spirovski to Ferencvaros and Boban Nikolov to MOL Vidi.
There seems to be no dominant team in Macedonian football. Do you think this is a help or a hindrance?
I would disagree with your first point. There is a dominant team and frankly it is not even close between them and the others. I am talking about Shkendija. Looking at their squad, both in terms of quality and depth, they are by far the best team domestically. Last season, the gap between them and second placed Vardar was 35 points. This season, that gap between those top two is 16 points with two rounds to go. That is the definition of a dominant team.
With Vardar becoming weakened over the past two years, that has hurt the league. Competition is always good. In the case of football, it pushes teams to invest and get better. Shkendija really has no incentive to try and keep up because they are so far ahead of the others. Now, to their credit, Shkendija has largely kept the core of their team together, despite other teams around them getting weaker, especially Vardar.
What would be seen as a successful year in Europe for Macedonian football fans?
Only Shkendija can realistically dream of reaching the Europa League group stages this summer. They have reached the Europa League play-off round in three consecutive years, but they fell short each time. Still, they have represented themselves and the league very well. To reach the play-off round in three years from our domestic league is a big accomplishment. Even the Shkendija head coach often complains about the lack of competition in the league hurting his team when it comes to Champions League / EL qualifying.
Besides Shkendija, two other teams have secured spots in Europe for this summer. Those teams are second placed Vardar and third placed Akademija Pandev. The fourth and last spot for Europe is still up in the air as there are several teams in contention. I must note that Vardar’s participation remains a question mark. Several newspapers have speculated this week that Vardar may be denied a license due to wages that they still owe to some players. Regardless of what happens with Vardar, I do not expect them, Akademija Pandev (their first time qualifying for a UEFA competition) or the fourth team to make any type of positive noise in the summer. It is really Shkendija or bust.
Is there any money in Macedonian football?
This is another simple answer, no. Only Shkendija has a stable ownership situation. Vardar did as well before things started spiraling out of control two years ago, or right after they made history by reaching the Europa League group stages. Vardar is an interesting story. Their owner Sergey Samsonenko is portrayed as a wealthy Russian in our media, yet there is very little info on him when you speak to people from Russia. I have asked some Russian sports journalists what they know about Samsonenko, and they really do not have much about him. It is odd.
Shkendija, meanwhile, is owned by Lazim Destani of the company Ecolog. That is a wealthy company and Shkendija’s fortunes turned shortly after Destani and Ecolog purchased the team. The other teams are all in a similar position, lacking stability and facing uncertainty from one year to the next.
Do most of the country get behind the Macedonian sides playing in Europe or is there a lot of tribalism still apparent?
No, there is a lot of tribalism that still exists. That is because Vardar is supported by the ethnic Macedonians, while Shkendija is supported by the ethnic Albanians who live here. Thus, when Shkendija does well, many ethnic Macedonians do not really root for them. The same is true when Vardar had success in Europe. The ethnic Albanians would not support them. Those two teams and fan bases dislike each other. Furthermore, the domestic league is not followed by many people here. They care more about the big-5 European leagues than our domestic league. Attendance is pathetic and no TV channel has any interest in broadcasting league games.
How is the EL viewed in general by Macedonian football fans?
It really comes down to opponent. If a domestic team is playing some random team from a lesser country, the interest is non-existent whatsoever. It is like blah. However, when the opponent is a big name, then interest increases. Shkendija has played the likes of Milan and Vardar played the likes of Fenerbahce. For those games, tickets sold out quickly. For other games, there are mostly empty seats. As for the EL in general, people that are die-hard football fans watch that, but otherwise the CL is followed more closely than the EL among casual sports fans/citizens.
How do you think the Europa League 2 will affect Macedonian EL performances and what has been the reaction to the formation of the competition in Macedonia?
The teams like the competition because it will allow them the opportunity to make money. Their odds of qualifying in Europa League 2 are greater than the current Europa League model. So, the teams love it.
However, if you speak to journalists, not so much. The Europa League 2 pretty much eliminates any chance of a team from a big league visiting our country. Over the past decade, we have had Liverpool, Milan and Lazio visit in Europa League qualifiers. That would no longer be possible under Europa League 2. So, you lose that aspect. However, overall, the teams like it for the potential ability to make money. They will play lesser teams from lesser countries, so the playing field is more even.
It also allows UEFA to say they care about the little countries, which they obviously don’t. They wanted to appease the big leagues (offer more spots for them in the CL and EL), thus the creation of Europa League 2 to satisfy both them and also the little leagues which see the new competition as a way to potentially make money. You lose prestige, but gain opportunity (trade-off most accept).
What would you like to see UEFA do to level the playing field more for small European sides?
I liked the older model, but then the big clubs threatened to form a super league and leave, so UEFA got nervous and offered the big leagues more automatic spots. That really put the small countries in an awful spot where qualification for the group stages became nearly impossible.
The next step was the Europa League 2 to address concerns that representatives from small countries raised. I personally do not like it because when you were from a small country (whether journalist or player certainly), you always hoped that your country’s team would face someone from a big league. Sometimes major upsets would happen which are good storylines to cover. That element of David versus Goliath and rooting for the underdog will be lost with Europa League 2, but change is inevitable in sport.
Although I personally do not like Europa League 2, I acknowledge that it will level the playing field among the lesser countries and give teams from those leagues a more realistic chance at qualifying for something.
Find all your Champions League betting odds here
Author: Tom Mortimer
Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.