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Former pride of Macedonian football in a battle for survival: The decline of Vardar

5. February 2024
Vardar (foto: Nogomania)
Vardar is currently facing significant challenges. After a long period of stability under the leadership of Sergei Samsonenko, the club is now fighting for survival with the support of its fans.

Football clubs in the territory of the former Yugoslavia have generally retained their power, strength, and influence even in the new circumstances following the disintegration of the joint state. In Slovenia, the biggest clubs are still Olimpija and Maribor; in Croatia, former federal first-league clubs Dinamo, Hajduk, Rijeka, and Osijek are still at the top; in Serbia, Red Star and Partizan are unrivaled, with Vojvodina and Radnički also holding their ground; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the challenge of new "Croatian" clubs, Sarajevo, Željezničar, Borac, and Velež are still relevant; and in Montenegro, Budućnost and Sutjeska have maintained their dominance.

The situation is somewhat different in Macedonia, where the biggest and most successful club, Vardar from Skopje, has fallen into major troubles. Currently, the red and black are back in the first league after two years in the second division, but they are at the bottom of the table and drowning in enormous debts.

What happened to the club that was a symbol of Macedonian football for decades?

Since the 1992/93 season, when Macedonians got their state league, Vardar has won a record eleven championship titles, significantly more than any other club. Tied for second place on this eternal list are Škupi, Rabotnički, and Škendija, each with four titles. But since the 2019/20 season, when Vardar won its eleventh title, its trajectory has been steeply downward.

Vardar became a joint-stock company in 2012, and in January 2014, it was bought by Russian betting magnate Sergei Samsonenko, who had already become the owner of Vardar's men's and women's handball clubs. The owner of Russia's largest betting chain "BetCity" bought the football club at a public auction for a laughable 81,000 euros. His big investments in handball paid off in 2017 when RK Vardar became the European champion, and in the 2017/18 season, FK Vardar achieved exceptional European success, including qualifying for the group stage of the Europa League. Additionally, Samsonenko built a modern training center for footballers for four million euros.

Why did the Russian oligarch from Rostov-on-Don invest huge sums of money in Macedonian sports? Was it a geostrategic move in the eternal conflict between Russia and NATO? Was his role similar to that of another Russian oligarch, Ivan Savvidis, also from Rostov, who in 2012 bought the port and the football club PAOK in Thessaloniki? Was the main goal to protect Russian strategic interests in Macedonia and sabotage Macedonia's accession to NATO?

Given that he suddenly announced in January 2019 that he would leave the club, and did so six months later, this scenario seems most likely. At that time, the Prespa Agreement was finally confirmed, an agreement between Macedonia and Greece on changing the name to North Macedonia, opening the way for Macedonia to join the EU and NATO.

Whether the reason was this or that, his sudden departure plunged the club into major troubles, as he left debts of 2.3 million euros. Vardar still managed to finish second in the 2018/19 season but was excluded from European competitions due to accumulated debts. In the next season, the first without its Russian "benefactor," the red and blacks became champions again, but for financial reasons, they could not participate in the Champions League qualifiers.

Then came the 2020/21 season, in which Vardar, as the defending champion, was relegated from the league. Due to non-payment of revenue, all players left the club, and the season had to be completed with youth players. A two-year agony in the second division began under the leadership of new owner, an unknown builder Slobodan Krstovski, who "earned" another two million euros in debt. Moreover, Vardar lost its training center built by Samsonenko, as it belonged to the Russian businessman, not the club.

This summer, however, Vardar returned to the first league through additional qualifications. In the decisive match against city rival FK Skopje on neutral ground, the red and blacks celebrated a 3:0 victory in front of full stands and returned to the top tier. This was an exceptional achievement for young coach Boban Grnčarov, a former footballer of OFK Belgrade, who played for the red and blacks during the golden years under Samsonenko, and returned in the toughest times to perform the coaching job without pay. Footballers, owed 12 months of wages by the club, played for donations.

The club literally lived on love. The fan group Komiti collected money for survival, and former players, such as Stefan Ristovski, currently playing for Dinamo Zagreb, also helped. Players washed their own jerseys and lived day by day. And despite everything, they somehow managed to return to the first league. But their troubles were far from over.

Debts remained, Slobodan Krstovski withdrew, and in the end, Komiti had to take over the club before the start of the current season. Since a pro-Western coalition is currently in power in Macedonia, Vardar cannot expect state aid. The ideology of the fan group is extremely nationalistic, they are fierce opponents of the Prespa Agreement and the name change of the state.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed in 2018 that Ivan Savvidis, a man close to Putin and owner of PAOK, sent Komiti 300,000 euros to organize protests against the name change referendum.

While other clubs were preparing for the season's start, Vardar was collecting money and patching holes, just to be able to start the competition in the first league at all. Therefore, it's not particularly surprising that the red and blacks are last in the table at the end of the fall part of the season. They have won only five times in 18 matches and suffered ten defeats.

That's why Gorazd Mihajlov became the new coach, leaving fourth-placed Sileks to take the helm of the fallen giant. The deficit is not large, and survival is realistically achievable.

Can the biggest Macedonian club, now owned by fans, still survive in the league? That would be a greater achievement considering the situation than any of the eleven championship titles they have won in the past.

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