For the third in a series (you can find parts one and two here and here) about under and over-achievements in the 2017-8 European qualifying rounds, we now turn to those countries which have exceeded expectations. Our first case study in this regard is Macedonia, where Skopje’s FK Vardar became the first ever Macedonian side to reach a European group stage after beating Turkish giants Fenerbahçe in the Europa League playoff round. Vardar ended up in a tough group with Zenit St. Petersburg, Rosenborg and Real Sociedad. Their first group game unfortunately ending in ignominy as they lost 5-0 at home to Zenit. To find out more about Vardar’s rise Rightbankwarsaw talked to Aleksandar Zlateski of Macedoniafootball.com.
Hi Aleksandar, can you explain the roots of Vardar’s success this season and over the last couple of seasons?
Vardar’s success can be attributed to several factors. Number one is definitely finances. It is tough for a team to achieve success without money. Several years ago, Sergei Samsonenko took over FK Vardar. He initially came to Macedonia and owned just the handball teams (men’s and women’s) of Vardar, but then decided to also purchase the football club as well. Frankly, not much is known about Samsonenko. He is from Russia, but few people seem to know how he acquired his money and why he chose to invest in Vardar out of all teams. However, his entry into FK Vardar has been very positive. Vardar started throwing money at players and convinced numerous current and former national team players of Macedonia to join the club. They also bet on young players. From our U21 team that qualified for this summer’s U21 championships in Poland, six were under contract with Vardar.
So, they have a good mix of young and veteran Macedonian players. They surrounded Macedonian players with some under the radar foreigners. None of the foreigners came in with much hype. Frankly, very little was known about them. But, Vardar has hit home runs with guys like Juan Felipe, Hovhannes Hambardzumyan, Tigran Barseghyan, Yevhan Novak, Jaba Jighauri and Damir Kajasevic. In Macedonia, a team is allowed a max of 8 foreigners. Vardar currently has 9 after they recently signed Vanja Markovic. To clear a space for him, they will loan Moustapha Quaynor from Ghana to another team.
The second aspect is infrastructure. Samsonenko financed the construction of a training center for Vardar. It is a nice facility with several pitches. It has all of the accommodations that teams from decent leagues have. As a matter of fact, guys who came to Vardar from foreign leagues have said that Vardar offers the same conditions as those leagues, whether it be Belgium, Romania, Ukraine, etc.
A third aspect is they begun to understand the importance of a strong academy. They have brought on well respected coaches to develop youngsters at their academy with the goal of grooming them to become first team players.
How would you describe the state of Macedonian domestic football? Would you say it is improving or regressing?
I would say the domestic league is improving. Vardar and Shkendija have stable ownership situations and they push each other to get better. They are the clear two best teams as the gap between them and the other eight times is wide. It seems year to year Vardar and Shkendija improve and I look for that to continue. Shkendija have reached the play-off round of the Europa League in back-to-back years, but they fell short each time. I think coming that close will lead their owner, Lazim Destani, to spend even more money to finally get them over the hump. Coming that close, but losing, must be frustrating.
As for the other teams, I feel that Pelister is currently the third best team, but a distant third behind the two above teams. They changed coaches after getting eliminated by Lech Poznan, and I think that was a good decision by them. The new coach will force some young players and that is wise. They need to get more athletic. Plus, they kept some veteran players and I think the veteran/youth mix is better now. Their stadium is currently undergoing renovations, so once that is done it will be more good news for them. They have passionate fans and a good Pelister team is good for the league. They have a rivalry with Vardar.
After them is Rabotnicki, but they are very weakened from last season. They lost their best young player, Elif Elmas, to Fenerbahce and veteran guys like Vance Sikov and Goran Siljanovski left them. They just don’t have the resources to keep their best players. However, Rabotnicki believes in their academy and promotes a lot of youth players. They have a good, young coaching staff which excels in teaching and developing young players. That is how they survive as a club. Develop and empower young players, then sell them abroad.
This year for the first time competing in the top division is Pandev Academy, a club financed by Goran Pandev. They are another team which believes strongly in having a good academy. They play with a lot of young players and surround them with several veterans. I look for Pandev Academy to get better and better from year-to-year. That is important for the league as well. It is crucial to have some quality teams from the eastern past of Macedonia. Pandev Academy, located in Strumica, fulfills that criteria, and having Goran Pandev involved with a team is a great thing.
There is not much quality behind those teams, with the exception of maybe Sileks. But, to me, they are a mid-table team at best.
Are the success of individual clubs purely down to those clubs or have administrative changes/reforms of the Macedonian FA assisted?
I have to give the Macedonian federation some credit. They have worked closely with the teams and UEFA to renovate a number of stadiums across the country. Infrastructure has been bad for a long time, but they finally started to address that. The stadiums in Tetovo, Bitola, Prilep, Strumica and Stip received new pitches and floodlights. The stands are also being renovated in some of those stadiums. Now, it is not perfect. Many of those stadiums look awful from the outside. They are old. In some ways, it is like putting lipstick on a pig, but you have to start somewhere. At least the pitch and stands will be much improved from where they were. Some progress.
Furthermore, the FA put a rule in place that in top division games, every team must start at least one player 21 or younger. This forces every teams, even ones that don’t trust youngsters, to put at least one guy 21 or younger to play and develop. In the second division, teams must start at least 2 guys 21 or younger. That was a good decision in my view.
How do you see Macedonian domestic football developing in the future?
I look for domestic football to develop nicely in the future. Vardar and Shkendija will continue pushing each other. That is good. It forces both clubs to spend and be aggressive. I expect Pandev Academy to become a top 3-4 team domestically in the near future, and Rabotnicki and Pelister should be their usual selves. Good sides, just not at the level of Vardar or Shkendija.
What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?
Not a fan of them. UEFA was afraid of top clubs bolting and forming a Super League, so they gave in to the pressure and gave the top leagues more automatic slots. It clearly will hurt smaller leagues. The chances of reaching the group stages was already tough for Macedonian teams, now it becomes close to impossible, especially the Champions League group stages.
Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? Is so, what should it look like?
No. That would then discourage incentive to invest in the team and be good enough for the Europa League or Champions League. It should be tough qualifying for those competitions. Yes, the new format will make it tougher, but not impossible.
Still, something should be done to reduce inequality in European football. One way to do this is for UEFA to allocate more money to teams from smaller nations. A strong academy is instrumental to sustain good results. UEFA could also offer coaches that can properly teach the fundamentals of the game. In the end, everybody plays football these days. Upsets happen and they will continue to happen.
Thanks go to Aleksandar, who you can follow here. Stay tuned for the last instalment!