There is a big possibility that “Mladost” stadium in Strumica will host the 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Israel and Albania.
The Macedonian capital of Skopje has the biggest and best stadium in the country. The “National Arena Philip II of Macedon” has a capacity of 32.580 seats and meets all of the criteria to host international matches. That was further emboldened by the fact that UEFA chose that venue to host the Super Cup in 2017.
However, for a multitude of reasons, the citizens of Skopje have not shown much interest in the national team or in football in general. Despite the fact that Skopje has a population of 800.000 people, the stadium is quite empty for most games. The lone exception is when powerhouses like Spain come in. The lack of interest if also true on the club side. Vardar and Rabotnichki, the two tenants at the stadium, only draw several hundred people per game, if that.
Fans from other cities across Macedonia have often complained that the national team rarely plays outside of Skopje. The last game that the senior squad played in another city was back in 2011 against Albania. That friendly was played in Prilep and ended goalless. Before that, in 2009, Canada was beaten 3:0 in Strumica. So, since 2011, Macedonia has played all of its matches at the “Philip II Arena” in Skopje. The main reason for that is the disastrous conditions of the other venues. None of them meet FIFA and UEFA standards. Even in club competitions in Europe, all of the four teams in the Champions League and Europa League qualifications must play at that one stadium as well.
Belasica, the pride of Strumica, recently got a new owner who has decided to invest in the stadium. Floodlights were installed and the pitch was renovated, also including a drainage system. “Mladost” stadium still needs additional work, but the federation can help in that area to make sure the venue can be cleared to host international games. FFM’s plan is for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Israel and Albania to be played there, and hopefully that comes to fruition. Earlier this season, the Third League East match between local rivals Belasica and Akademija Pandev drew 5.000 fans. Vardar and Rabotnichki have not come even close to reaching that figure in their home games all season.
Besides “Mladost” stadium, other venues across the country are undergoing renovations as well. “Gradski” in Tetovo should be the first to be completed. Then, “Pod Tumbe Kafe” in Bitola and “Gradski” in Shtip will get finished as well, so the national team will have more options. Smaller cities are a good solution for national team fixtures. Their stadiums have a smaller capacity, meaning the stands will get filled close to the maximum. People in those cities want to watch the national team live, plus there are fans of football in the surrounding towns and villages of cities such at Strumica, Tetovo, Bitola or Shtip. The noise and atmosphere would be much better in such a setting.
Not just these the games against Israel and albania, but FFM should also move the one against Liechtenstein. If the citizens of Skopje failed to fill “Philip II” even against Spain, and we all know very well that these “fans” come only depending on the greatness of the opponent, imagine how many fans will come against Liechtenstein. The games against Spain and Italy must stay in Skopje due to the renomé of the opponents, but definitely FFM must move the Liechtenstein game in other city. Bitola, Tetovo, Shtip and Prilep are a decent option.
Below are the attendance figures for Macedonia’s home games in 2015:
10.000 vs Luxembourg
6.500 vs Slovakia
3.500 vs Belarus
1.000 vs Australia (friendly)
28.843 vs Spain
2.500 vs Ukraine
As you can see, Luxembourg saw a respectable number, but that was because the fans were still optimistic in the first home qualifier. After that, things quickly went downhill, with Spain being the lone exception. However, most people went to the Spain qualifier to watch their star players, not because of Macedonia.
Returning to Albania and Israel, these will be high-risk games. So, in addition of wanting to test other cities, the Macedonian federation is very concerned about playing Albania and Israel in Skopje. There is a rather large ethnic Albanian community that lives in Skopje, and FFM desperately wants to avoid an incident like the one that occurred when Serbia hosted Albania. The risks are huge, so moving that qualifier to Strumica would reduce some of the potential threats. There aren’t any Albanians that live in Strumica, so it would be easier to organize a game there. The same is true for Israel. Whoever Israel plays, there are always risks. Just consider the security presence when Israel played on the road against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the EURO 2016 qualifications. There were snipers and military personnel protection Israel. Therefore, FFM hopes to have the stadium in Strumica ready for Albania and Israel.