FC COOL trains in Skopje

A small country’s first appearance in a major tournament is a football fairy tale: the ordinary kids who made it to the big time, with their whole country behind them.

But North Macedonia’s story, captured here in Matteo de Mayda’s photographs, is more complicated. Thrilling as its run to this month’s European Championship has been, culminating in last November’s 1-0 playoff victory over Georgia, the team very much does not have the country’s two million inhabitants behind it.

What is now known as North Macedonia has almost always been ruled by foreigners, from Bulgarians through nearly six centuries of Ottoman Turks to Yugoslav apparatchiks. It gained independence in 1991 as Yugoslavia fell apart, but for decades its national team excited little local interest. Many Orthodox Christian Macedonians considered themselves heirs to the great Yugoslavian football tradition rather than the measly Macedonian one. They continued to support Yugoslavia’s national team and later Serbia, just to the north.

Then there are the ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population. They are almost all Muslims, though the local ethnic complexity is such that the most famous Macedonian Albanian was the Catholic nun Mother Teresa. North Macedonia is a throwback to the melting pot of ex-Yugoslavia before ethnic cleansing. One star of today’s national team, Eljif Elmas of Napoli, has Turkish roots.

Most Macedonian Albanian football fans support Albania or Kosovo. The two fans of KF Shkendija (which has an Albanian nationalist background), pictured here in the crumbling stands, won’t be cheering for North Macedonia this month. They belong to Shkendija’s ultras group Ballistët, named after an Albanian fighters’ group from the second world war. Peace mostly prevails between Albanians and nationalist Macedonians, but there have been outbreaks of violence.

FK Vardar, a club popular with ethnic Macedonians, has a nationalist ultras group known as the “Komiti”, named after bands of rebels who resisted Ottoman rule. During a period of “antiquitisation” a decade ago, a nationalist government rebuilt the capital Skopje with neoclassical monuments that supposedly evoked Alexander the Great’s Macedonian kingdom. You can see a statuesque Alexander raising his right fist behind the middle-aged fan sitting on the grandiose fountain. The remade Skopje has been called “the Disneyland of the Balkans”.

The Komiti’s most recent crusade was against the country’s name change, in 2019, from Macedonia to North Macedonia. Greece said the old name implied territorial claims on the neighbouring Greek province of Macedonia and made renaming a condition for letting the country into Nato. North Macedonia’s ruling social democrats have generally appeased Greece by downgrading bombastic nationalism. The national stadium, previously named after Alexander’s father, Philip II, was renamed after the pop star Tose Proeski, a Balkan Elvis Presley, killed in a car crash aged 26.

It was in this unquiet atmosphere that the national team suddenly found glory, led by 37-year-old striker Goran Pandev, who scored the winner against Georgia. Pandev — who also funded the youth academy pictured here — is a national hero who could probably get elected president if he wanted, reports de Mayda. North Macedonia’s prime minister Zoran Zaev exulted in the qualification, while carefully avoiding any mention of the country’s name. Then, in March, North Macedonia slayed mighty Germany in Duisburg and is now on track to qualify for next year’s World Cup.

These are heady days in a poor country with surprisingly good football infrastructure, where women and girls are finally being encouraged to play too. If the national team can amass more glory this summer and possibly even at the World Cup next year, it might just help solidify North Macedonia’s fragile national identity.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist. This work will be exhibited at Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea, Milan, June 12-October 24; mufoco.org

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