Football in Macedonia certainly looks to have been improving in the past couple of seasons. From June 2017, the national team went undefeated for sixteen months, and after that they managed to win their League D group in the 2018 UEFA Nations League to secure a play-off place for a huge opportunity at qualification for which could be their first major tournament, Euro 2020.
writen by James Campbell
Macedonian players are surfacing on the European scene, representing clubs in the top leagues around Europe. In Spain’s La Liga there is goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski and playmaker Enis Bardhi. Dejan Iliev is contracted with Arsenal and making his mark in the English Championship is Leeds winger Ezgjan Alioski. The legendary Goran Pandev has been playing in Serie A for almost fifteen years, with Aleks Trajkovski and Ilija Nestorovski also plying in Sere B in Italy. Full-back Stefan Ristovski has spent almost two years with Sporting in Portugal and highly rated nineteen-year-old Elif Elmas, already a first-team regular for Turkish giants Fenerbahçe, has attracted the attention of many of Europe’s elite with his performances the past year.
Exciting times are in store for the Macedonian national team and players, but it is a different story domestically. Besides Vardar shocking Fenerbahçe to make the Europa League group phase two years ago, not much has happened on the domestic scene. Throughout the almost thirty-year history of the Macedonian First League, clubs have struggled in European club competitions. There have been twenty-seven topflight seasons since the Macedonian First Leagues inception in 1992. Before that, Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia, with their clubs competing in the Yugoslavian football leagues, so there was never a guarantee that a club from what-now-is a Macedonia would qualify for Europe’s elite tournaments every season.
In history, no Macedonian side has competed in the group stages of the Champions League. Vardar did compete in the first round of the 1987/88 European Cup under the old format but were eliminated emphatically by Porto. Besides that, the best performances in the Champions league by a Macedonian side is reaching the third qualifying round. This was accomplished by Vardar twice in 2003/04 and 2017/18, before being knocked out by Sparta and København, Rabotnicki managed it in 2006/07, before falling to French outfit Lille, and Shkendija got that far last season, before crumbling to RB Salzburg. The most historic wins are probably Vardar’s triumphs over Russian heavyweights CSKA in 2004, and multi-time Swedish champions Malmo in 2017.
The biggest success story in the Europa League was in 2017/18 season, when Vardar Skopje became the first Macedonian club to reach the group phase. The Europa League became the Europa League from the 2009/10 season, before that it was known as the UEFA Cup. In the old UEFA Cup format where there was no group stage or the group stage appeared later in the tournament, the best result was Vardar making the second-round proper in 1985/86. The other times a Macedonian club reached the tournament proper was Vardar in 1995/96, Pobeda in 2000/01, Cementarnica 55 and Vardar in 2003/04, and Rabotnichki in 2006/07 and 2007/08.
Aside from Vardar qualifying, the furthest a Macedonian club has got to making the group stage of the Europa League format the past ten years has been the play-off round. Macedonian clubs have fallen at the last hurdle on five occasions. Rabotnichki did it twice, losing to Lazio in 2011/12, and losing to Rubin in 2015/16. Shkendija have lost at the play-off round stage three consecutive times in the past three seasons, getting eliminated by Gent, AC Milan and Rosenborg.
So why does this keep happening? Why can’t a club from Macedonia qualify for the Champions League group phase. Why has there only been one occasion where a club has reached the Europa League group phase? Perhaps the main reason is that the Macedonian first league is not an established league. The football league is only now trying to sort out a TV deal in Macedonia. It is extremely difficult to attract quality with small budgets, and even harder to keep it. Look at last season’s top scorer Vlatko Stojanovski. He has already agreed a deal with French club Nîmes. I would be shocked if other youngsters like Ljupche Doriev and Petar Petkovski stayed in Macedonia for another season, let alone their whole careers. The players want to play abroad in more established leagues to hone their craft and develop themselves and who can blame them? Look at the Macedonia squad selected in June to play against Poland and Austria. It consisted of only four players who play club football in Macedonia, Shkendija’s trio of Visar Musliu, Egzon Bejtulai, and Marjan Radeski, along with Vardar’s Kristijan Toshevski.
As for attracting players to the league, only Vardar in recent seasons had what many would call a multinational squad, with former players including Brazilian playmaker Juan Felipe, Armenian duo Tigran Barsegyan and Hovhannes Hambardzumyan, Georgian winger Jaba Jiguari, Argentine Nicolas Herranz, Ukrainian Yevhen Novak, and the infamous Russian Maksim Maksimov. South Americans Sebastián Herrera Cardona and Stênio Júnior have been around for a few seasons but there are not many who venture into this part of the Balkans to improve their football careers.
The best hope a Macedonian side has of success is now Shkendija. They may be the exception. Despite the Albanian support and affiliation, Shkendija are a Macedonian club, from the Macedonian city of Tetovo and their success in Europe only contributes to the development of the Macedonian league. They easily have the biggest budget in the league. They are owned by Ecolog and have kept highly rated Macedonian international center backs Visar Musliu and Egzon Bejtulai, and they have two of the most talented players in the league, the great Besart Ibraimi and the recently acquired Juan Felipe. Shkendija have what looks like to be a monopoly in Macedonia for years to come, and the only side in Macedonia who look like thy can cut it and mix in with Europe’s elite.
Now let’s look at the fixtures this week for Macedonia’s four representatives in European club competition. Macedonia is ranked #34 in UEFA country coefficient. These are ranking the UEFA association members based on performances in Europe the past 5 seasons by clubs representing them. This means that Macedonia get one UEFA Champions League place, and three Europa League places, all to enter at the first qualifying round.
This is the first season since the 2004/05 season where Vardar and Rabotnichki are not representing Macedonia in a European Competition. Rabotnicki lost out on the last match day, losing 1-2 at home to Shkupi so they missed out, and Vardar did finish as the league runners-up behind Shkendija but did not obtain a UEFA license due to a breach of financial rules. That leaves us with champions Shkendija in the Champions League. In the Europa league representing Macedonia are Macedonian Cup winners and third placed Akademija Pandev, fourth placed Shkupi, and fifth placed former Macedonian champions, Makedonija Gjorche Petrov.
Nomme Kalju vs. SHKENDIJA
Estonian champions Nõmme Kalju won their second Estonian title to participate in this year’s Champions League qualifying stage. Kalju managed to reach the third qualifying round back in 2013 in their last appearance. They have never reached a group stage for a major European competition in 1ten attempts. One edge they may have over their opponents is that they are in the middle of a competitive season so the players a match fit and conditioned for playing competitive football whilst their opponents are on a summer break. Forward Ellinton Liliu is in fine form with eight goals in his last eight matches.
Shkendija are without a doubt are a club on the rise. For the Macedonian leagues, they are with a large budget, a talented squad, they have dominated Macedonian football the past two seasons and looks to continue for many years. On the European stage it’s time for them to step up and make some noise. They have lost three straight play-off round ties for the Europa League to more established clubs Genk, Milan, and Rosenborg. Club legend Besart Ibraimi is fit again and so far, the club have managed to keep hold of highly rated Macedonian defensive pair of Visar Musliu and Egzon Bejtulai despite interest abroad.
Shkendija have the talent, recent European experience, and momentum from their domestic dominance to go through here.
Prediction to progress: Shkendija
Pyunik vs. SHKUPI
Pyunik faced off against Macedonian opposition at this stage last season and were unseeded underdogs and eliminated Vardar with home and away wins. This time Pyunik were seeded and drew the inexperienced Shkupi. Pyunik know how to get the job done against Macedonian opposition, in 2004/05 Champions League qualification Pyunik defeated Pobeda and in the 2013/14 Europa League they defeated Teteks. They are unbeaten in 6 European matches against Macedonian opposition.
Pyunik certainly have the experience as they have competed in European qualifying rounds every season since 2002/03 and the best, they did was last season where they reached the third qualifying round. Pyunik captain Armenian international Karlen Mkrtchyan pulls all the strings in midfield and will be the danger man Shkupi must keep an eye on.
Shkupi are competing in only their second European campaign. They made debut last season drawing Scottish giants Rangers. They put in a good showing getting a draw at home but lost 2:0 in Glasgow to crash out in the first round. Shkupi have established themselves in the Macedonian since gaining promotion in 2015.
Shkupi qualified for this opportunity on the last day of the season beating Rabotnichki 2-1 to deny their opponents European football with two goals from Turkish midfielder Berat Jonathan Ustabaşı. They lost last season’s joint top scorer Serginho but have strengthened since this time last year particularly with the addition of Besar Iseni from Vardar and the recently signed Brazilian goalkeeper Thulio.
This could be very close, and it all depends if Shkupi can get avoid a heavy defeat in Yerevan.
Prediction to progress: Pyunik
Alashkert vs. MAKEDONIJA GjP
In the second Armenia vs Macedonia tie, the opponents for Macedonian opposition are Alashkert. The Armenians made their European debut just four years ago in 2015. Last season they were in the Champions League qualifying, where the got knocked out by Celtic. They then progressed on the Europa League second qualifying round, knocking out Montenegrin champions Sutjeska before falling 7:0 on aggregate to Cluj of Romania.
Alashkert have been performing well domestically, winning the Armenian league in three of the past four seasons. They have more recent European experience than Makedonija GjP and have some South American flair in the team as they have a partnership with Brazilian clubs Botafogo and Fluminense.
Makedonija GjP scraped their way into this qualification stage by winning away at Pobeda on the last day to finish 5th in the 2018/19 Macedonian top flight. Normally this would not be a qualifying position but given that Vardar did not receive a license to compete, Makedonija GjP were the next highest ranked club available.
Makedonija GjP have only competed in Europe’s elite tournaments twice before, the UEFA Cup in 2006/07 and the Champions League in 2009/10. Both times they went out to their first opponents, which were Lokomotiv Sofia and BATE Borisov.
They surprisingly let go last seasons top scorer Hristijan Kirovski to newly promoted Struga. They have replaced him with former Prishtina forward Alen Jasharoski and have re-signed former players Ermedin Adem and Brazilian left back Fernando Rodrigues. Makedonija GjP honestly do not look like they have done enough to bring players in for their European campaign, but it feels like there may be one upset on the cards in the Macedonian clubs vs Armenian clubs battle.
Prediction to progress: Makedonija GjP
AKADEMIJA PANDEV vs. Zrinjski
Akademija Pandev will be making their European debut here after finishing last season as Macedonian Cup winners and finishing in third place behind champions Shkendija and Vardar. This is an incredible story of an academy founded by Macedonian legend Goran Pandev, after whom the club is named, in his town of Strumica. The club was only founded in 2010, it only had a senior team competing since 2014 and in two short years since being promoted to the 1.MFL, they have already won a cup and qualified for Europe.
There has not been much transfer activity but so far star man and last seasons top scorer with sixteen goals Ljupche Doriev remains an Akademija Pandev player despite a lot of interest for the young talented striker. The good news for Akademija Pandev is that even though they are facing a vastly more experienced side in Zrinjski, a Macedonian club has never lost to a Bosnian club in the Champions or Europa Leagues.
Zrinksji are six-time Bosnian champions and have competed in Europe the last seven seasons. They have never qualified for a group phase, their best outing being the third qualifying round last season where they were eliminated by Bulgarian champions Ludogorets, and in the 2010/11 season where the lost to Danish side Odense.
This will be an incredibly tough game for Akademija Pandev against vastly more experienced Zrinjski. Akademija Pandev also have the disadvantage of playing away second, so if they have any chance they must get a result at home on Thursday.
Prediction to progress: Zrinjski