A New Sun of Unity Rises over Macedonia at Euro2020
“What nationality are you?”
Growing up in Melbourne’s ethnically diverse and working-class western suburbs in the early 90s, this question was a conversation starter.
It gave you an immediate sense of the person’s tastes and culture, what you might have in common, and whether or not you should like them.
The western suburbs were a hotbed of nationalism, particularly the Greek, Turkish, Serbian, Croatian, and Macedonian variety. These minority groups, for the most part, had descended upon Australia en masse after the fall of the White Australia policy in 1973 and after socialism and numerous wars had plagued their respective homelands.
In the primary schoolyard, as a 10-year-old Australian-Macedonian, I would often find myself in verbal altercations with Australian-Greek classmates. We jostled over territorial, historical and cultural rights to all things Macedonian, based on nothing more empirical than simply regurgitating what our parents had told us.
“Macedonia is Greek” they would declare.
“Greeks called Macedonians barbarians — non Greeks,” we would fire back.
Nationalism on the Terraces
It wasn’t just the schoolyard where these ethnic lines were drawn but also on football fields across Australia.
If you were Greek, you supported South Melbourne Hellas.
If you were Macedonian, you supported Preston Makedonia.
And if you were Greek from modern-day northern Greece (the southern part of the Macedonia region), you supported Heidelberg Alexander and were called “traitors” by fans of Preston Makedonia.
It often went way beyond name-calling, though, with physical confrontations between sets of supporters the norm. Nobody was off limits — not even a Greek Orthodox priest who made the apparent mistake of going to a Heidelberg game away at Preston in 1992.
But where did this nationalism from Australian-born citizens come from? After all, many of them had never stepped foot in their parents’ country of birth.
Minority Group Nationalism in Australia
Centuries-old political, religious, and cultural differences, buoyed on by the emergence of nation-states in the 19th Century, and the myriad wars, border changes, and ethnic genocides of the 20th Century laid the foundations.
But insofar as our Balkan nationalism in Australia was concerned, it came from our parents. They had grown up amidst economic insecurity and a lack of opportunity in their homeland, which essentially precedes nationalism and political extremism. This was something that Adolf Hitler coopted in his own rise to power.
We see this play out today on not just a national level but a local level too.
For example, some of the most notorious and violent football hooligan groups in the world hail from socio-economically disadvantaged groups. As a result, they rely on the performance of both their local football club on the pitch, and the performance of their hooligan factions off it, for belonging, self-esteem, and moral righteousness.
This is as true of the fans of Egypt’s Al-Masry as it is of those of Wisla Krakow, Red Star Belgrade, Turkey’s Fenerbahce, or Brazil’s Flamengo.
Our nationalism in Australia also came from being part of a tight-knit community of fellow Macedonians, Greeks, Croats, or Serbs. These communities provided social support to our parents — most of whom had left their families on the other side of the world. These communities gave them a sense of ‘home away from home’.
But these communities also meant that, as first-generation Australians, we spent a lot of time growing up surrounded by people from our ethnic group. Whether it was at picnics, dinner dances, or football matches, our political beliefs were being reinforced all of the time by people just like us.
Civil War in Macedonia
The curtains closed on the 90s, a decade marked by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the bloody Bosnian War that followed.
The Republic of Macedonia had been an independent state for nine years, and had somehow managed to gain independence from Yugoslavia whilst evading the bloodshed that plagued its northern neighbours.
However, peace was to be short-lived, as the country was embroiled in a civil war in 2001, between ethnic-Albanian insurgents and Macedonian forces. The insurgency, which lasted for nine months, resulted in the displacement of 170,000 Macedonians and several dozen casualties.
The Albanian-Australian community also had a handful of football teams of its own. The supporters of one such team, Dandenong Thunder, would often enjoy fisticuffs with fans of the Serbian-backed Springvale White Eagles and those of Preston Makedonia.
Despite the civil war in play at the time, the Macedonian national football team moved ahead with their attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Like the previous two attempts, it was to end in failure. Macedonia wound up with just 7 points from 10 games, finishing fourth in its group, having won just one of its 10 qualifying matches. The team would fail to qualify for the subsequent 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 World Cups as well. It seemed that qualifying for a major football tournament might not happen in my lifetime.
Meanwhile, Australian-Macedonians could only look on as their former Yugoslav countrymen — those from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, all enjoyed qualification for major football tournaments. In the case of Croatia, they made it all the way to the World Cup final in 2018, only to lose out to a star-studded France, 4–2, clearly amongst football’s elite.
Macedonian-Australians were resigned to taking joy from the individual performances of players such as Goran Pandev, who lifted the European Champions League trophy with Inter Milan in 2010.
We’d reminisce about the time that Macedonian Darko Pancev led Red Star Belgrade to Champions League glory in 1991 (then the European Cup), winning the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the process.
And we’d take solace in the local exploits of Preston Makedonia.
Qualification for Euro2020
Macedonians did enjoy some success on the global sporting stage. Its basketball team finished fourth at Eurobasket 2011, and its handball team finished fifth at the European Championships in 2012, but what supportersreally craved was qualification for a major football tournament.
Just the mere idea of bringing together the global Macedonian diaspora under one stadium’s roof to celebrate, sing and drink the team to likely losses but hopeful victories, that left us salivating.
But as UEFA, the ruling governing body of European football, increased the number of participating nations at Euro2020 from 16 to 24, permitting an additional eight teams to qualify, the country was in with a better chance than ever at appearing at a major tournament.
And appear it did, qualifying for the tournament after finishing third in its qualifying group and progressing via the newly-formed Nations League, with wins of Armenia, Estonia, Kosovo, and Georgia.
The qualification sparked jubilant scenes across the country and the global diaspora, most of whom wouldn’t be permitted to travel to the long-awaited tournament because of COVID-19 (this sadly included yours truly).
Same But Different
Macedonia had qualified for a major football tournament, but it was a different team in name and nature.
First, the country’s socialist government had buckled under decades-long pressure from Greece over its ongoing name dispute, effectively rebranding the country to the Republic of North Macedonia. Sidenote: Greece also objected to Macedonia’s use of the MKD acronym, and the FFM logo that adorned its jerseys, at Euro2020, but UEFA promptly refused their demands.
If UEFA was selling official North Macedonia scarves at Euro2020, you can bet your bottom dollar that none of the traveling Macedonian fans spent a single euro purchasing one. Instead, they clutched their Macedonia scarves from years past as they chanted “Makedonia” in the stands.
Not only was the team suiting up under a new name, but a mere 20 years after the civil war of 2001, (and six after a 2015 gun battle left 22 people dead) Macedonia’s squad now featured five ethnic-Albanians, and an ethnic-Turk. This included the likes of Leeds United’s Ezgjan Alioski and Levante’s Enis Bardhi (ethnic-Albanian), and Napoli’s Elif Elmas (ethnic-Turkish).
As human beings, we fear change, but it can often be the best thing for us — both as individuals and as nation-states.
Macedonians, Albanians, and Turks effectively came together under the emblem of the Football Federation of Macedonia, and played their hearts out for the country of their birth at Euro2020. They fought valiantly, only to fall to Austria (1–3), Ukraine (1–2), and the Netherlands (0–3), bowing out of the tournament in the first round.
Winning Off the Pitch
As Yuval Noah Harari put it, the advent of nationalism meant that we went from caring simply about our family and relatives to millions of strangers who share our national identity. But in countries with multiple ethnic groups, it can and as we have seen time and time again in the Balkans, ends in bloody disaster.
But perhaps Macedonia’s Euro2020 team scored a much more important goal off the pitch than they ever could have on it (one that can’t be incorrectly ruled offside, ahem).
They came together under one flag to embody solidarity and sent a powerful signal to the small country’s inhabitants that its different ethnic groups need to work together if they are to flourish.
The Balkans has run the killing each other experiment many times, and it has only served to see western and central Europe race ahead across numerous indicators of wealth and prosperity.
It’s time for a new way.
A New Sun is Rising
The opening lines to Macedonia’s national anthem loosely translates to “today over Macedonia, a new sun of freedom is rising”.
Technology is racing ahead, and people in the Balkans are gaining access to better education and work opportunities afforded to them by the internet, the remote work revolution, and open borders with Europe. Perhaps the economic insecurities of yesteryear will further lessen. Indeed, Macedonia’s star striker Goran Pandev has invested millions of dollars earned overseas back into country, by way of his football club and youth academy Akademija Pandev.
When economic scarcity and insecurity dissipate, people can derive a healthy sense of self-esteem, not from latching on to nationalistic causes, but by earning a good living and doing good in the world.
Then, all that’s left to do, is to come together to sing songs, drink rakija (a strong spirit popular in the Balkans), and wave flags not under the guise of exclusive and hateful nationalism, but under the banner of inclusive and loving patriotism.
As someone who today enjoys myriad opportunities to better my own life, the idea of wasting energy on disliking another person purely because of their religious, political, or ethnic identity, is the most-furthest removed thing from my mind. There is so much more to be gained through acceptance and compassion.
World Cup 2022?
If lightning strikes twice, and travel restrictions from Australia are lifted, I might have the joy of watching this multi-ethnic team play in person at World Cup 2022 in Dubai.
For now, I’ll have to be content in having watched a new sun rise over Macedonia from the comfort of my couch in Melbourne, one that is an example to not just its neighboring Balkan nations, but to an increasingly polarized world.