Mayhem Macedonian style
England is not alone in having a hooligan problem
Tuesday September 02 2003
When England enter the Gradski Stadium here on Saturday they will be surrounded
by a sea of Macedonian flags, with the red cross of St George nowhere to be seen
if the Football Association has its way.
The FA's efforts to prevent England fans reaching the stadium should in theory
guarantee a virtually all-Macedonian crowd, the measures prompted by fears that
English and Macedonian supporters would clash. Judging by the comments of
Macedonian Football Federation officials, England's reputation for hooliganism
appears as well established in the Balkans as it is in the rest of Europe.
However, security concerns for the Euro 2004 qualifier revolve around the
behavior of home fans as much as around their opponents'. Although the team
itself were the victims of a barrage of missiles in June in the Group Seven
match in Turkey, Macedonian fans have a far from clean reputation.
Over the last year and a half, Macedonian clubs have been involved in a series
of violent clashes. One ofhe most serious, and certainly the most absurd, was a
government- sponsored workshop to help curb football violence in June last year.
An argument during a dinner at the lakeside resort of Ohrid between members of
the country's six leading teams turned into a fist fight. Pistols were fired.
Amazingly, nobody was seriously hurt.
Since the country broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992, football, and particularly
its fans, have mirrored the fledgling state's short and turbulent history.
Supporters clubs' have an intense rivalry and often act as interest groups for
different ethnic communities, including Macedonians, Albanians and Turks. This
rivalry was heightened after conflict broke out in the north of the country
between ethnic Albanian guerillas and the largely ethnic Macedonian security
forces, which ended only in August 2001.
Supporters groups have an even closer relationship with their teams than in
England. The clubs partly fund them, helping to pay for banners and fireworks.
Fans are encouraged to travel to away matches with free tickets.
The club with the most passionate fan base is Vardar, based here in the
Macedonian capital and England will play in their stadium on Saturday. It is a
team that identifies itself with Macedonian nationalism perhaps more than any
other in the country.
Its supporters' group is called Komiti, after a Macedonian rebel faction that
oppposed Turkish rule in the 19th century. The Macedonian flag, a golden sun on
a red background, is omnipresent at most matches. In March last year Komiti
members, who are all ethnic Macedonian, clashed with supporters of Sloga
Jugomagnat, another Skopje team but based in the Albanian-dominated area of
town. A policeman was shot and wounded in the clashes.
Komiti members see themselves as front-line fighters in the defence of their
nation. In 2001 many joined a controversial paramilitary police force known as
the Lions, which was blamed by western diplomats for repeatedly destabilising
fragile peace talks between Macedonian and Albanian leaders and was disbanded
earlier this year.
"Vardar is a symbol of Macedonia", said Goran Boskovski, one of the organisers
of Komiti. "Many of our supporters were members of the Lions. We were the first
to support our government during the crisis."
Komiti's nationalism is matched by a hatred of Albanians, whom they see having
gained unfairly from the 2001 conflict. Many former guerillas are now members of
They also have "respect" for England's football hooligans. Union flags can be
seen as alongside the black circle and cross of the white supremacists at Vardar
Boskovski laments now that English football fans are too tame, and blames
British officials for clamping down too hard. "They sit down now with their
hands at their sides. It's like they are going to the theatre."
But Macedonian Football Federation officials dismiss this professed admiration
for hooliganism as bluster. "They are not organised like some western fans. We
do have, however, a nationality issue," said Alexandra Nikolova, a member of
the federation's executive committee, comparing it to the racism that other
football associations are trying to eradicate from grounds across Europe.
The ethnic divisions have in part been overcome by the rise of the country's
star player, Artim Sakiri, an ethnic Albanian recently bought by West Brom.
Sakiri has done much to ease divisions with his success, even kissing the
Macedonian flag during matches - a rare sight since ethnic Albanians favour the
flag of Albania.
The prospect of being able to draw or even win against England also appears
attractive to most people in Macedonia ,whatever their ethnicity. The 2-2
draw at Southampton in October was greeted as a victory by the thousands who
watched on television in Skopje.
"Our only hope is they underestimate us like last time," said Zlatko Krstevski,
a sportswriter for the daily paper Dnevnik. "Who can't like the appeal of
winning or even drawing against a country like England?" But Krstevski says the
odds of that happening are small. "Personally, I think it's going to be a
If England fans do manage to get tickets, that could apply to more than the
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