More Than Just a Game

In a haze of fireworks, smoke and rain, the fans rushed onto the pitch to celebrate the goal that would clinch the league title for Vardar Skopje. Ordinarily, a pitch invasion would have cost their team penalty points – but on the last night of the season, Vardar’s fans had nothing to fear. The stadium echoed to triumphant chants. I joined the fans on the pitch and soon found myself among the players, all swept up in the moment.
I rarely go to football matches in Macedonia. It has been ten years since I last sat among Vardar’s most hardcore fans, where the smallest incident can escalate into a mass brawl involving the police. But at the climax of the season, there was no better place to feel the adrenalin rush of a diehard football supporter – and to understand how he functioned in a large group. The quality of top-flight football played in Macedonia is no match for the game in England or Germany, but the supporters here are just as crazy about their teams.
I started off the evening with members of the “Komiti” – Vardar’s main supporters’ group. We warmed up in bars and restaurants before setting off for the game, surging through the narrow streets of Gjorce Petrov district. The setting for the stadium was very different to the modern arenas one sees in European capitals. Chickens roamed behind the stands, and one of the exits backed onto cages housing dogs.
This seemingly rural idyll was upset by the heavy police presence. I counted three vans containing dozens of riot-control officers, as well as a firefighting vehicle and special police units. In a multi-ethnic country that went to the brink of war a decade ago, violence on the football stands always carries the risk of spreading through the Macedonian and Albanian communities. Although the Vardar match did not involve teams from rival ethnic groups, the police were not taking any chances.
During the game, groups of fans competed at making the most noise and climbing to the highest point in the stadium. At one point, they chanted for the release of Johan Tarculovski – a former Komiti leader who was jailed for war crimes by The Hague. A thin line separates sports and politics in Macedonia, and the fans can walk on either side of it. The reasons may be understandable. With few sporting triumphs to celebrate, their energies can easily be directed to other fronts.
That night, Vardar secured its first league title in nine years, and the party spilled into Skopje’s streets and parks. There was no violence.