KF Shkupi may be playing for their Europa League future as they bid to overturn last week’s 3-1 first-leg defeat to Shamrock Rovers tonight. But this is a club used to fighting for a cause. They are the team of North Macedonia’s Albanian minority, a community that has had to fight for its right to live in the country it calls home.
The rise of Shkupi to the summit of North Macedonian football — they won a first-ever league title last season — has dovetailed with the growing influence of the country’s Albanian minority, in football and in society. For years, Albanians in Macedonia struggled to assert their right to equality with their Slavic compatriots. The core of Albanian players that helped the country make history at Euro 2020 last summer would have been unthinkable in the early years after the country’s independence when the national team was virtually a closed shop to Albanian Macedonians.
In the aftermath of the ethnic violence that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the status of Macedonia’s Albanians threatened to become the next flashpoint in the struggle for solutions to the problem of nationality in the Balkans. Macedonia’s Albanians represented a large national minority which harboured fears about being carried off into a new, ethnically defined state that could not be guaranteed to have its interests at heart.
Resistance to the restrictions that the Skopje government imposed on their civil rights grew as the decade went on until events over the border threatened to tip the situation in the direction of all-out conflict.
The impact of the war in Kosovo in 1999, and an influx of Albanian refugees into Macedonia, had the dual effect of deflecting popular blame for the country’s lagging economic performance on to the Albanian diaspora, while at the same time radicalising the Albanian resistance in the form of militants escaping the conflict.
At the same moment, a new force was emerging at the summit of Macedonian football. Shkupi’s predecessor, FK Sloga Jugomagnat, had traditionally been the club of the outsiders, primarily the Turkish, Albanian and Roma communities that lived in Skopje’s old town district of Čair. In May 1999, they became champions of Macedonia for the first time, the first time since the country’s independence that a club with a core of ethnic Albanian players had been crowned champions.
Arsim Abazi was a beanpole of a central defender who would go on to play a role in Kosovo’s fight for recognition on the international football stage, while the striker Argjend Beqiri, a rare Albanian to have been capped for Macedonia’s national team in the early years despite the prejudice, scored the goals that fired the team to the title. Defender Zekirija Ramadani also became a pioneer for Albanians who would go on to represent Macedonia.
Sloga, with their principally Muslim fanbase and core of Albanian stars, finished a landslide 11 points ahead of their great rivals and bastions of Slavic Macedonian culture, FK Vardar, and at the very moment when the two groups were entering the most violent phase of their stand-off.
In March 1999, a journalist from the Chicago Tribune reported on the tension that had gathered in the country: “People here fear that, after Kosovo, comes Macedonia.” That prophecy came into alarming focus when, in March 2001, after nearly two years of escalating demands and counter-demands between the government and the newly formed Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), insurgents opened fire on Macedonian security forces in the northern city of Tetovo, triggering a six-month insurgency that pulled large parts of the country into violence.
Meanwhile, Sloga continued to dominate the Macedonian First League. They were crowned champions for a second time in 2000, this time finishing more than 30 points clear of Vardar who vanished down the table and finished 10th. The following season, Sloga won their sweetest triumph, beating their rivals from Skopje to the title on head-to-head record after the pair finished level on points at the top. That summer, the mastermind of those three title successes, the coach Gjorgji Jovanovski, departed to take the national team job. It was to be the final moment of glory for the Albanians of Čair before their club began a decade-long slide that would end in bankruptcy.
Within weeks of the title win, a ceasefire was agreed between the NLA and state authorities. The two-year flashpoint had lasted almost exactly as long as the brief league dominance of Sloga.
The business went to the wall in 2009, and in a bid to preserve something of the football club, a merger was agreed with lower-league outfit FC Albarsa to form the modern incarnation of Shkupi.
The Football Federation of Macedonia does not consider the new club to be the legal successor, a move supporters say is politically motivated. But for the people of Čair and North Macedonia’s wider Albanian community, Shkupi will always be the heirs to Sloga’s heroics performed during the 1999-2001 insurgency.