In November’s Fifa rankings, Macedonia FYR fell to 155th place, the worst position in the country’s history. Their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup have all but disappeared, the national team reflecting the desperate state of Macedonian football.

Milko Djurovski is a former Yugoslavia international and the brother of the former Macedonia FYR head coach Boško. “The biggest problem of the Macedonia national team is that everyone wants to push his player there,” he told Šport newspaper just after being appointed manager of the Slovakian club ViOn Zlaté Moravce at the start of the 2015-2016 season. “Over the last few years, the sons and friends of some officials have been given opportunities. Then the natural quality is missing. About 65 players got a chance in the national team during my brother’s spell.”

Before Macedonia’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovakia in June 2015, I sat down in the lobby of the Aphrodite hotel in Rajecké Teplice, a little spa town near Žilina in northern Slovakia, with the team’s captain and first-choice goalkeeper Tome Pačovski. When he started speaking in English, his teammates around us burst into laughter and he suggested moving to the nearby dining room. Macedonia had only taken only three points from their first five games, and those from an unconvincing 3-2 win over Luxembourg in Skopje, their winning goal coming in stoppage time.

I asked why Macedonia have not been able to qualify for a major tournament yet. “We have just changed head coach – Boško Djurovski was replaced by the Serbian Ljubinko Drulović, who led Serbia’s Under-19 side to the European Championship in 2013,” he said. “We did not have good results in the first matches, because we played against very good teams like Spain and Slovakia. It was very hard to battle with these teams for victory. But we are still young and we have to get ready for the new campaign, as our chances of finishing among the three best teams in this qualifying group are too small.” He was right: Macedonia managed to earn only one point from the next five matches and finished at the bottom of the table, having even lost away to Luxembourg. 

Macedonia showed no improvement under Drulović’s leadership and after only four months in charge he was replaced by his former assistant Igor Angelovski, who led his club side Rabotnički to successful results in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League despite a limited budget. But things haven’t improved. Defeats to Italy and Israel in October confirmed what had widely been expected since the draw grouped Macedonia with Italy, Spain and their arch-rivals Albania, that they would not be qualifying for the World Cup.

The veteran goalkeeper Tome Pačovski has retired from international football but the former Internazionale, Lazio and Napoli forward Goran Pandev, now 33 and playing for Genoa, has returned to lead a squad that includes Aleksandar Trajkovski (Palermo), Nikola Gjorgjev (Grasshoppers) and David Babunski, now of Crvena Zvezda but developed at Barcelona’s academy. Pandev’s relationship with the national team has been troubled. He fell out with the Slovenian coach Srečko Katanec, who led the team from 2006 to 2009. 

“Srečko was stubborn and had his way of doing things,” Aleksandar Zlateski, the editor of, explained. “Pandev also had a strong personality and they clashed at times. Katanec is big on accountability and he would get on at players, regardless of who they were – whether Pandev or a lesser name player. Pandev felt invincible and Katanec thought that he was undermining his authority in the team. That is why he told the federation president it was either him or Pandev. Ultimately, the federation’s president sided with Pandev and Katanec was gone. I believe that Katanec is a good coach, but he can wear players out at times. He can be very demanding and that wears thin on some players over time.”

When the national side was preparing for a match against the Netherlands, the team went for a walk near their hotel. Pandev was injured and having a course of injections and asked if it was necessary for him to go on the walk. Katanec supposedly replied that if he didn’t want to go on the walk, he could go to the airport.

According to the Uefa ranking for club competitions, the Macedonian league, infamous for its frequent betting scandals, ranks below Moldova and Liechtenstein, lying 42nd out of the 54 countries. The pitches, stadiums and dressing-rooms are in appalling shape. Only small ultra groups attend the matches and some of them stay at home as part of their protest against the Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM). Football still lurks in the shadow of handball, the most popular Macedonian sport thanks to FC Barcelona Handbol’s right-back Kiril Lazarov.

But the last few months have brought a new hope. The newly appointed management of the FFM, in cooperation with the government, has initiated a series of projects, focusing on improving sporting facilities. In addition, a few local clubs, particularly FK Vardar of Skopje, which has been bought by the Russian businessman Sergey Samsonenko, have been able to bring experienced Macedonian internationals back from abroad. Vardar are the most successful Macedonian club and were Yugoslav champions in 1987.

Pačovski, now 34, returned after five years in Belgium’s top flight. He explained to me, “Vardar is a new project. The new owner has a good strategy to build a team and wants to qualify for the Champions League. His offer was almost as lucrative as the one I would get in Belgium.” Pačovski had no idea how the situation would look a few months later: by the start of 2016-17 season, Vardar’s management had decided that his high salary was financially problematic and the experienced goalkeeper, who has won 46 international caps, ended up as the third choice.

The Macedonians travelled to Slovakia about a month after the political turmoil in Kumanovo, a city in the north of Macedonia. Its inhabitants are mainly ethnic Macedonians, but there is also a significant (25%) ethnic Albanian community. Eight policemen and 10 armed men lost their lives in a shootout between police forces and local armed group called National Liberation Army (NLA). 

Although the prime minister Nikola Gruevski immediately denied it, its widely believed that the incident was the result of long instability between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. For Gruevski, it was only one of his problems: the refugee crisis has had a significant influence on domestic affairs in Macedonia and he was accused of wiretapping around 20,000 people, including journalists and politicians. At first, he refused to step down despite mass anti-government protests, but he resigned in January 2016. Over the last few months, Macedonia has been in political turmoil.

Moreover, the memories of Macedonia’s 2001 civil war are still alive in the country. The NLA had demanded greater rights and autonomy for ethnic Albanians and after a nine-month-long insurgency they were given what they wanted: under the Ohrid Agreement, the Macedonian government promised recognition of Albanian as the country’s second official language, more jobs for Albanians in state institutions (especially the police and the army) and some degree of decentralisation.

During my conversation with Pačovski, I mentioned the Kumanovo incident and asked him if the tension between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians has had any influence on the national team and atmosphere in the dressing-room. 

He seemed to be a little uncomfortable with the question, but said diplomatically: “No, we do not look at these things. We are 22 players here. We do not see ourselves as Albanians and Macedonians. Of course, we respect every religion, but we fight for the Macedonia national team. We do not look at ourselves, asking who is Albanian and who is Macedonian. We play for Macedonia and we are here for Macedonia.”

Zlateski has a similar opinion: “The majority of footballers are not nationalistic, like some of the public. Every country has individuals that are very radical, but most footballers are not like that, so there have been no issues between Macedonian and Albanian players inside the team. Sure, Albanian players usually hang out with other Albanians on the team, but that is normal. That happens even in Switzerland’s national team with their sizeable number of ethnic Albanians. In most photographs, they may be hanging with each other, but on the field players are professionals and work together with their teammates, regardless of their nationality. When Ljubinko Drulović was named manager, some journalists asked whether there would be problems between him and the Albanian players since he is Serbian. As we know, Serbia and Albania don’t really get along, but everything has gone smoothly. They have left any political differences aside and have been very professional.”

After 2001, there was an attempt to divide the league into Macedonian and Albanian sections. “Some Albanian members of the national federation‘s management demanded ‘more rights’ at a Uefa meeting in Nyon,” said the writer Milorad Stojmanovski. “Since then the vice-president of the FFM and one of the assistant coaches has tended to be Albanian. Some domestic national coaches have ‘flirted’ with Albanian players, inviting them to the national team. At the moment, in the absence of quality players, the fact is that many ethnic Albanians with Macedonian roots from abroad are actively seeking an invitation to the national team.” 

After his takeover, Drulović even appointed the former international Argjend Beqiri, born in Tetovo, to recruit ethnic Albanians into the Macedonia national team. Dinamo Zagreb’s defensive midfielder and captain Arijan Ademi was one of the latest additions, but in November 2015, he was suspended for four years after testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. 

Because attendances for league matches are so low, the atmosphere tends to be lacking. Most clubs see only a few hundred fans come to the stadiums, with Shkëndija’s average crowd of 7,000-8,000 the exception. “I believe that football could become a part of a Macedonian’s everyday life,” Ferhan Hasani, the national team midfielder, told me. He was sitting next to Maribor’s Agim Ibraimi, who helped with translation. 

When his contract at the Danish club Brøndby expired last summer, Hasani returned to his boyhood team Shkëndija, a club from Tetovo. but so far it seems that his words are only a dream. The fans boycott national team matches because of poor results and, more particularly, because of their bad relationship with the FFM. “It is a disappointment as we play for them,” said Pačovski. “Sometimes three or four thousand people remain in front of a stadium. We play football and do not care about these things, but you need some support from the stands for your own success.” 

Hasani continued, “If you have good results, fans come. When we won against Serbia under our former coach Čedomir Janevski, the stadium was full. That is the same all around the world. On the other hand, a player has to behave professionally. It does not affect my performance. Of course, in front of a big crowd you have bigger motivation to show your best.”

The average league attendance has fallen every season. If the FFM wants to change the situation, it needs to come up with a clear plan and changes must happen immediately. “Politics have to be put aside,” said Stojmanovski. “That does not mean that the government cannot help, but only for the sake of better football and its status in society, or by making new laws that would stimulate investment from various companies. Another important thing is to bring back the trust of the people – to convince them that Macedonian championship is not fixed and no team will be privileged due to political or other interests.” 

The influence of ultras in Macedonia, as everywhere in the Balkans, extends into politics. Members of Komiti, Vardar’s fan group, often show banners portraying Johan Tarculovski, a former ultras leader and also a bodyguard of the president Ljubčo Georgievski, who was jailed after being found responsible for death of seven ethnic Albanians during the 2001 insurgency. After being released in April 2013, he was welcomed by the then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski. He was one of the leading representatives at Ljubanci, the second-division team with ties to Vardar, but he is not involved in the club’s activities anymore. 

The majority of ethnic Albanians support Shkëndija. Shkëndija’s fan group Ballistët, named after Balli Kombëtar, an Albanian nationalist and anti-communist organisation formed during World War II, is one of Komiti’s greatest enemies. They make a point of remembering ethnic Albanian rebels and travelled to Kosovo to visit the grave of local guerrilla leader Adem Jashari. 

I canvassed opinions from one of their members, who described himself as an “old school” ultra. He refused to talk on Skype and would not tell me his real name, but created a new e-mail address to answer my questions. He claimed that he had never been arrested.

“An icon and a hero like Adem Jashari will be in our thoughts forever,” he said. “Why would not we go [to his grave]? Showing respect never hurts anyone. On the other hand, the only reason why Komiti support Tarculovski is because he killed those Albanians. But, in the end, we took the whole fucking country in 24 hours, so I am not sure who won the war, you decide. 

“If Serbia tells them [Komiti] to do something, they will do it even if they have to fuck their own mother. Tarculovski is no one for us.” According to him, a lot of Ballistët’s members fought in the 2001 war and after it ended they had to stay in Albania or Kosovo because of the government’s unwillingness to let them go back to Macedonia.

Ballistët supports the foundations and international recognition of Greater Albania, a putative territory inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians comprising Albania, Kosovo and some parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and FYR Macedonia. Shkëndija’s ultras sing the Albanian national anthem before every match, home or away. “We are Albanians,” the member said. “Nothing in our blood or soul says anything about Macedonia. We were born in Macedonia, but Tetovo was part of ethnic Albania and I pray to God that it will belong to Albania very soon.” Even the website of Shkëndija, one of only five first league clubs with a proper website, is only in Albanian, with no Macedonian or English version. 

At a league match with Napredok, Ballistët took down a Macedonian flag and replaced it with an Albanian one. “We did it because police started swearing at us,” the member claimed, “and were saying stuff like, ‘Why did you travel from Tetovo? You know you are going to be beaten up really good’, so to piss them off we removed the flag and some of them ran away from us.” 

Ballistët also helped a few families affected by the Kumanovo turmoil by donating clothes, money and food. The supporter told me that although Shkëndija was run by politicians 10 or 15 years ago, Ballistët has never favoured any political parties and never will. According to him, before 2001 about 60% of ultras got arrested after each game against ‘Macedonian’ teams, just for being in the stands, but the situation is reportedly different now as a lot of Tetovo policemen are ethnic Albanians, too.

“People who come to see Shkëndija have obtained various degrees – they are doctors, dentists, solicitors, successful businessmen, etc. Shkëndija is more than just a football club. Everyone has a good job and life, but when it comes to Shkëndija everything is different. Shkëndija were the only way to beat Serbians or Macedonians, so at the games against Teteks or Vardar there are people over 70 sitting in the stands, watching and then crying – it doesn’t matter if we lost or won. This is our life. Shkëndija is everything for Albanians in Macedonia, especially in Tetovo. When I say everything I mean genuinely everything – job, wives, children; all these things suddenly do not matter when it comes to a football game. We have a lot of people coming from Albania and Kosovo just wanting to be here and experience it all.’ 

In February 2013, the new FFM management started the campaign Fudbalot na Prvo Mesto (Football in First Place) with the goal of reducing the increasing violence and nationalism in Macedonian football. However, a member of the ultras told me it was a pointless initiative: “The FFM will never change anything to do with us. They play a game like that campaign to look good in front of Uefa, but inside they are a mess. We are the most fined club in Macedonia. You should come to some Vardar v Shkëndija match in Skopje and you would see what they sing and say and what banners they have but Komiti will never get fined. Why? The FFM is run by Komiti, it always was and always will be. Why were Vardar not relegated to the second division when they finished 10th? It’s a joke.” He said that the boycott of the national team will continue: “Nobody cares about the national team, not ethnic Albanians.”

A few weeks after the interview with Ballistët’s active member, I wrote to a member of Komiti. His real name is Kristjan, he’s 29 years old and works as an economist. He defended Tarculovski’s reputation: “He is one of us. Tarculovski is not just a hero for Komiti, but for all Macedonians because of his bravery and his actions against the Albanian terrorists during the war in 2001, for which he was wrongfully sentenced to prison.” He denied Komiti having any connection with Serbia. “We have a lot of conflicts and political problems with Serbia.” Not surprisingly, he mocked everything the Ballistët member had said: “Where did you find that guy? He’s out of his mind or just some 13-year-old kid!”

Kristjan angrily denied the suggestion Komiti are linked to the FFM: “We are at constant war. Vardar gets fines and suspensions all the time and we stopped supporting the national team because of our war with the FFM. The fines from the FFM are unfair, because Ballistët and Shkëndija are always protected.” It was the exact opposite of what the Ballistët member had said. “Whenever we sing bad songs the match is stopped, but in Tetovo the referees are afraid to do anything and Albanian policemen never take action against Ballistët. The reason for our rivalry is very simple: they are Albanians.”

He points to the huge importance of Vardar: “Vardar are more than a club, not just for Komiti but for the whole of Skopje and Macedonia. They are the most successful club in the country. They were the only Macedonian club in the First Yugoslav League. When Vardar played at home, people from all parts of the country would come to Skopje.”

Kristjan also sees a way in which supporters could be drawn to national team matches: “We need success and good results. The fans will start going to the stadium when the players start battling and playing hard for the national team, not just for money and for the chance to get sold to a better club after paying for their place in the team.”

Generally, for a success at international level, it’s necessary first to raise the level of the domestic league. However, in FYR Macedonia, there are only three teams with a strategy close to the standards required to compete at European level – Vardar, Shkëndija and Rabotnički. 

Vardar almost declared bankruptcy in 2007 because of an argument between the two main owners, who were unable to arrange a deal to divide expenditure and profit. Of course, top players left and the team’s results were affected by the sudden exodus. Vardar were subsequently bought by Samsonenko for only about €80,000 and Pačovski even told me that, after a year of the Russian’s leadership, “there is no difference between Vardar and clubs in Belgium, where I have played.”

Shkëndija have also had major financial trouble in the past, leading to fans’ campaigns on social media, supported by Lorik Cana and Xherdan Shaqiri. They have managed to persuade Ecolog International, a company run from Dubai but located in Tetovo, to take over the club. 

Ballistët’s member explained to me: “Ecolog helped a lot of poor people in Tetovo by finding them a job abroad. It all started as a joke in a bar. One night we were drunk and said what if Ecolog takes over Shkëndija. The next day we decided to paint a banner and put it in the city centre. As soon as people saw it, it was crazy. Everyone was talking about it for two months. Shaqiri, Cana, the actress Eliza Dushku and plenty of other well-known people got involved. The company is the best thing that has ever happened to Shkëndija.”

As the Macedonian economy is still in bad shape, it’s very difficult for clubs to attract foreign investors. Without them, most of the clubs have to battle to survive with only the limited financial support of mayors and regional authorities. 

Another big club from the capital, FK Rabotnički, described as the country’s last football romantics, do not have a rich owner, so they regularly have to sell their best players to western Europe. In 2014, they capitalised on departures of Taulant Seferi Sulejmanov to Young Boys and Gjoko Zajkov to Rennes. The defensive midfielder Darko Velkovski was also one of their most valuable prospects, having been converted into a centre-back to draw more attention from big foreign clubs. Despite rumours about a move to Internazionale, he unexpectedly signed a three-year contract with Rabotnički’s arch-rivals, Vardar. They needed to pay only €100,000 for him, yet at the time it was still the most expensive deal between two Macedonian teams in history.

Although the line-up has to be rebuilt after every transfer window, Rabotnički have continuously achieved decent results, most notably the double in the 2013-14 season. Last season, they even got into the Europa League play-offs, but were eliminated 2-1 on aggregate by Rubin Kazan. 

The hegemony of the trio might be soon endangered by the ambitious FK Pelister, a team from the south-western city of Bitola, who have won only the Macedonian Cup once (2000-01), but, like Shkëndija, have secured stable sponsorship and are aiming higher. 

In 2007, seven out of twelve league sides were unable to pay their players’ wages and health insurance regularly. The FFM could not clamp down on them because that would have led to league’s cancellation. There is still no players’ union in Macedonia. Pačovski referred to signs of improvement: “They have to pay everything now, because otherwise they would be relegated to the second or the third division.”

Zlateski agrees with that assessment. “Nowadays every team has to pay the license fee to participate in the first division,” he said. “Their failure to do so would obviously prevent them from playing in the top flight. In recent times, the clubs come up with the money to follow the rules of the FFM. There is a better structure in place now than there was in 2007, so I do not foresee a situation like that happening again.” In addition, a few former internationals have attended FIFPro meetings and their aim is to establish a players’ union in the future. 

At most clubs, the management, infrastructure and conditions for developing talented young players are poor. Players rarely have guarantees that their salaries and insurance will be paid on time, so many good youngsters move abroad. Pačovski, though, argues that it can be better to stay in Macedonia for longer. He himself moved to Beerschot AC as a 27 year old, when he had gained experience. “If a player is good enough, bids from foreign clubs will come eventually,” he said. “Also, at Vardar, there are a lot of senior or youth internationals. It is always better to play regularly in Macedonia rather than sitting on the bench abroad.”

A few years ago, many players considered even Myanmar or Vietnam as a step forward in comparison to the Macedonian league. “In Asia,” Zlateski said, “someone notices they’ve been capped by the national team and offers them the sort of money that the players have never seen before. They get excited and jump at the opportunity. Most of them, though, return to the Macedonian league within a year.”

The former leadership of the FFM, including the general secretary Lazar Mitrovski and the president Haralampie Hadži-Risteski, was unable to find solutions to Macedonian football’s woes. Both officials owned several betting companies during their spell at the FFM and lost support from clubs and fans. “They were completely inept and unqualified to serve in the roles they held,” said Zlateski. “Their incompetence is the main reason why Macedonia finds itself in the current position. Time stopped when they were in charge.” 

Hadži-Risteski was replaced by the former Vardar coach Ilčo Gjorgjioski in 2012. “He is close to the leading party VMRO-DPMNE,” Stojmanovski said. “It is very difficult to stay in power without the support of the government in Macedonia, so that was the reason why Hadži-Risteski resigned after the great pressure he had to endure while he was the president.”

Ilčo Gjorgjioski, as a man with significant experience in the world of football, understands the importance of developing promising young players and the FFM began a programme of huge investment into infrastructure. They opened 10 artificial pitches across the country with the help of Uefa’s Hat Trick programme. Stadiums in Tetovo, Bitola and Prilep are being renovated and a new stand was built at Petar Miloševski’s training centre.  Samsonenko also wants to improve Vardar’s facilities by investing about €1 million into the construction of a modern training centre and offices. 

Even if it did not help him to remain in office, the former prime minister Nikola Gruevski used to use football to promote his image. He would take part in opening new facilities and was once photographed in a Bayern Munich shirt while playing in a football match with his ministers. “Gruevski is not ‘good’ only at soccer,” said Stojmanovski, “but he showcases his talent in many sports, depending on the type of the pitch he is opening in the populist campaign that lasted throughout his time in power. The TV cameras always caught his free throws in basketball, or his penalties in futsal or handball, or the points he won at table tennis. He even stood in position against a boxer, the only sport he trained in actively as youngster. The real goal of all these ‘projects’ was only to increase his popularity. The fact is that this government has built many sport grounds and football pitches, it has spent about €45m on the reconstruction of the National Arena in Skopje, but there is no analysis of the sporting effects 

of this building campaign. The results of Macedonian sport do not show any progress, in spite of the great expenditure from the national budget.”

Despite all the scandals and turmoil of the past few years, Macedonian football is making some small steps to move to a higher level. The Macedonian sports radio reporter Sašo Kuzmanovski is optimistic about its future. “The changes that have happened in the last few years are just the beginning,” he said. “Big changes cannot happen in just one year. But I think that we are on a good path and I expect Macedonian clubs to come a bit closer to the professional clubs in Europe. For now, it is still too early to compare them. But if Vardar, Shkëndija or Rabotnički keep up the good work and hold on to their sponsors, I expect to see them playing in the play-off round in the Champions League or in the group phase of the Europa League.” Rabotnički were not far off last year and Shkëndija got very close in summer 2016, when they almost reached the Europa League group stage. However, after victories against Cracovia, Neftçi Baku and Mladá Boleslav, they lost in the play-off against the Belgian side KAA Gent. 

Stojmanovski sees a huge potential in some of the Macedonian football legends with international experience: “The crucial thing is to invest public money cleverly in infrastructure, soccer education, stimulating school academies, such as those of Goran Pandev, who sold one 15-year-old youngster to Inter.” The Pandev Academy might even get into the group of elite Macedonian clubs: they are overwhelming favourites to win the promotion into the First Division this season. 

At the moment, the FFM is trying to copy Iceland’s approach, offering various coaching courses to former players, who could be very useful in development of young players in the near future and, hopefully, in raising new Pandevs. 

While the national team appears to be at its worst low since gaining independence, behind the likes of Lesotho, Mauritius, Puerto Rico, São Tomé and Príncipe and Grenada in the Fifa world rankings, the recent results of the Under-21 national team offers at least some hope. Under the leadership of the former Vardar coach Blagoja Milevski, a team featuring such promising talents as Babunski, Boban Nikolov and Gjoko Zajkov earned a historical success: they advanced to the final stages of the 2017 Under-21 European Championship in Poland after finishing first in a tough qualifying group ahead of France, Iceland, Ukraine, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the talented 1994 generation is properly integrated into the senior national team in near future, FYR Macedonia can dream again.