Every shot, each pass, even a single touch of the ball seems to contract the excitement of spectators.
Boisterous men throw their arms around one another and sing hymns to a country’s newfound role in this European drama. More mildly but no less interested, women sit around wooden tables, their eyes silently tracing the passage of play. In front of this Skopje pub, a row of children sits, half-heartedly yielding makeshift flags scrawled in the brightest of reds and yellows. Win or lose, North Macedonia is unashamedly revelling in Euro 2020.
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Scenes such as this have played out across the country since the start of the tournament, which has galvanised public interest and helped to substantiate a sense of national unity for a country historically beset by cultural and ethnic divisions. There is a charming innocence in the joviality of the North Macedonian fanfare: It’s a welcome interval from embittered disputes with Balkan neighbours. Most recently this has been evidenced in a stand-off with Bulgaria over an interpretation of regional history and the national language of North Macedonia – which Bulgaria says is a variant of its own.
Such political conflicts have fared badly for North Macedonia’s standing in Brussels. After receiving the provisional green light to commence EU accession talks, Bulgaria blocked a continuation of the discussions, to the frustration of other EU members in the region, aware of the increasing influence of China and Russia in non-EU Balkan nations.
Then there was the brouhaha with Greece over the country’s name – a quarrel that was laid to rest in 2018, under a resolution that mandated the country to change its name from ‘Macedonia’ (also the name of a Greek region), to its current denomination.
The move was a concession from Skopje, who hoped that it would eventually pave the way for EU accession talks to begin. And while the commencement of those talks is still pending, the country is now seizing the opportunity to make its name on the European stage through other means. Principally that is, by way of the continent’s beautiful game.
Walk along any high street in Skopje today and you would not be mistaken in thinking that the burden of responsibility for this cause has been placed on the shoulders of a one Goran Pandev, the country’s star player and veteran striker, who plies his trade for Italian Serie A club Genoa. At thirty-seven years old, it’s a delicious irony that Pandev is of a more mature age than North Macedonia itself, which only achieved independence from Yugoslavia as recently as 1991.
It is to Pandev, who has represented his nation for twenty years, that citizens of North Macedonia issue their gratitude for competing in the Euros. The striker scored the goal that sealed the nation’s qualification to the tournament in a match against Georgia last year.
After scoring in the country’s opening Euro 2020 game against Austria, Pandev continues to take up the mantle of national pride for North Macedonia. However, there will always be those who seek to debase Pandev and his compatriots’ participation. For this cause, Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic sought to allegedly deliver the first racist slur of the tournament. After scoring against North Macedonia, Arnautovic, who comes from Serbian stock, appeared to direct verbal abuse towards the North Macedonian team. Commentators suggested it was a racial insult against ethic Albanians in the line-up. As UEFA continue to investigate, Arnautovic was penalised with a one-match ban.
Politics and football have been colliding throughout North Macedonia’s Euro 2020 campaign. In the run up to the tournament, the country’s Football Federation came under criticism from fans for designing a new kit in the ‘wrong’ shade of red. Ultimately, the federation capitulated, and the familiar burning reds and yellows returned on the team’s uniforms.
The fallibilities of the Football Federation’s kit designers however were further exposed last weekend, when Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias penned a letter to North Macedonian counterpart Bujar Osmani, complaining over the use of the Federation’s initials ‘FFM’ on the team’s jerseys. Greece claims that the acronym, which stands for the ‘Football Federation of Macedonia,’ runs counter to the 2018 name-change treaty.
Behind Europe’s football stadiums, however, there are more delicate degrees of diplomacy taking place between North Macedonia and their Balkan neighbours, ahead of next week’s European Council summit in Brussels.
Just as the team was donning their ‘FFM’ inscribed kits for their clash against Ukraine on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was wrapping up a bilateral with Bulgarian caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev, in Sofia.
The pair had attempted to chart progress in the ongoing dispute over history and language that has so far obstructed the initiation of accession talks in Brussels. However, there was no news of a breakthrough following the meeting. For his part, Zaev said that the two countries “must clear the issues among ourselves, so that we do not leave unsolved problems in the European family.”
Win or lose, Euro 2020 may be the country’s best hope of substantiating a distinct cultural and national profile, and, along with it, a renewed hope in one day joining the EU.
Considering the ongoing political bickering between North Macedonia and her neighbours, the country would much prefer the eyes of Brussels to be on the football pitch, rather than Balkan ministerial bureaus. In this spirit, the message to EU leaders ahead of next week’s summit would not be that different from the narrative pitched in the country’s official Euro 2020 anthem. As the lyrics go: “Let’s go to Europe, the place where we belong.”
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.