As with everything else in this country, a lack of money has been the biggest problem for Macedonian football clubs and the reason for which some no longer exist. This problem troubles even the clubs with the most illustrious of histories, deleting them — and their traditions — from the football map. Football was first introduced to Macedonia in 1909 and shortly thereafter, in 1911, the first football clubs were formed. The oldest football club that is still active in Macedonia is FK Ljuboten from Tetovo. Founded in 1919, it sadly may not live to become the first Macedonian club to celebrate a centennial.
For many years now, FK Ljuboten has been in the shadow of two larger clubs from Tetovo, FK Teteks and Škendija 79. With the help of a Serbian sponsor Teteks won the Macedonian Cup in 2010. With Austrian sponsorship Škendija was promoted to the Macedonian First League this season and will most likely become Macedonian champions. But there’s one important thing that marks the difference between FK Ljuboten and the other clubs: Ljuboten unites both Macedonian and ethnic Albanian players and fans from Tetovo and the wider region of Western Macedonia.
With about 70% of its population being Albanian, and the city being the home of several ethnic Albanian political parties, Tetovo has become the unofficial capital of a predominantly Albanian region which extends in an arc from Skopje to Ohrid. At the beginning of 2001, an armed conflict began in the region when an ethnic Albanian militant group attacked Macedonian security forces. The war lasted throughout most of the year, with the main battles taking place in areas around Tetovo. In January 2002, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire but the tensions between the Albanians and Macedonians have never stopped.
The majority of the Albanians living in Tetovo support Škendija while the Macedonians living in the city support Teteks. The matches between the two clubs always involve tensions on the pitch, in the stands and outside of the stadium. Fights between the two ultras groups, Ballistet (Škendija) and Vojvodi (Teteks), occur before and after the matches. During the matches both groups sing ethnically and religiously insulting songs. Very often the fans of Škendija display banners with messages for both “Greater Albania” and against Macedonia, the country where they were born and currently live.
Such tense situations have never occurred at a Ljuboten match. Remarkably, the club has always united Macedonians, Albanians and other ethnic groups living in Tetovo and the wider region. Macedonians and Albanians have always played and cheered for the club together. FK Ljuboten is a symbol of unity and proof of Macedonian and Albanian coexistence.
But this could end soon. FK Ljuboten played in the Macedonian First League from 1993 to 1996 but have recently fallen to the Third League – West. Many years ago the club owned the old stadium in Tetovo, but it was nationalized by the country in 1945. A new municipal stadium has since been built and the old one neglected to the point of being unusable. Because of this, FK Ljuboten plays their home matches in the small village of Brvenica south of Tetovo. The club has not a single sponsor, with only the city of Tetovo offering the minimal support of paying the rental costs of the stadium in Brvenica and the club’s traveling fees. The players, however, haven’t been paid for eight months. They have only one kit, which is long sleeved, that they use for all of their matches, that is, in winter and summer. The club owns only two footballs for the players to use during training. And, as you can see from the photo above, the club’s office has simply deteriorated over time; there is neither electricity nor running water and the three tournaments trophies Ljuboten have won are used as buckets for collecting water falling from the broken roof. Sad but true.
Besides all of the problems, the players are doing quite well on the pitch and FK Ljuboten is currently ranked second in the Third League – West, which gives them a chance for promotion to the Second League. A group of enthusiasts has been trying to help the club in the last few years. They have even gone door-to-door in parts of Tetovo asking for small donations. Another group of young supporters now use Facebook and other social media to actively recruit new club members. With the annual member’s fee of only 10 euros they can help the club but obviously this is not enough. The oldest Macedonian football club could soon pass away at the age of 92.