Tomorrow, AC Milan will welcome KF Shkëndija to the San Siro in the first leg of this year’s Europa League playoff.
Like CS Craiova before them KF Shkëndija are a team that many Milanista might not know much about at all, so here’s a report!
It was 37 years ago, almost to the day, that Shkëndija found life. The Kuq e Zi or ‘Red and Blacks’ play their game in the 15,000 seater Ecolog Arena in Tetovo, Tetovo Municipality, just south of the Kosovan/Macedonian border.
Kosovo and Albania play a huge part in the heritage of KF Shkëndija, which was formed as a club to celebrate Albanian heritage, so that Albanian culture could be celebrated. Of course, this was disliked by the Yugoslav regime, who thought that KF Shkëndija might stoke and fan the flames of revolution within this southern corner of Yugoslavia. Kuq e Zi started at the bottom rung of the Yugoslav football ladder, before gaining promotions - as its popularity rose, it was disbanded by officials, who felt that if people wanted to band under a red and black flag - they’d be better off doing it in Albania. It was in 1991 when Macedonia split from Yugoslavia, and it was a few years after when KF Shkëndija finally found their way back into official football, after a number of years living under the radar. The fight of KF Shkëndija never truly left, and again - they embarked on a steady rise through the Macedonian league system before winning the top league in 2011.
That’s not the end of the story though - with success, also came hardships and this time, it was not through dictators, or officials. It was cold, hard cash.
KF Shkëndija are worshipped by the Ultras Ballistët. Named after the Balli Kombëtar, a nationalist movement in Albania, it was the Ballistët that campaigned for new-ownership for this slice of Albania in Macedonia. They asked Ecolog, a European firm, to invest in Shkëndija, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As for the Ballistët? They have a troubled history and are one of the more notorious groups in European football. Apart from the typical violence and antics that you might expect, there is a heavy tinge of rebellion and nationalist pride within the Ballistët. This is perhaps most defined by a game against FK Napredok, the Ultras climbed a flagpole to replace the flag of Macedonia with the Eagle of Albania. The police tried to remove the flag, but were met with resistance and flying seats. When FK Rabotnički came to town in a game that could have relegated Shkëndija, the ultras took to the pitch to stop the game and attacked the Rabotnički playing staff, which still got Shkëndija relegated. In fact, during Shkëndija’s UCL campaign which was ended by Partizan Belgrade, Belgrade admitted that the Ballistët made things incredibly difficult for Partizan, who had to view banners that read ‘Kill the Serbs’ - and it was these nationalist and murderous antics that almost saw Shkëndija through. The nationalist pride and downright desire to say what they please and do what they will makes the Shkëndija Ballistët fearsome and the Ecolog Arena a VERY difficult place to play. A hate for Serbia and anyone else that isn’t Albanian ensures that away followers are discouraged from a visit to the Ecolog Arena.
This playoff round is the furthest that FK Shkëndija have made it in the UEFA Europa League in recent years, and the difficulty of an away leg means that Milan MUST get the job done tonight. FK Shkëndija got here the hard way, after a 2nd place finish put them at the 1st round of qualifying in June.
So far, FK Shkëndija have beaten Dacia of Moldova, Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi or HSK of Finland and FK Trakai of Lithunaia so far, scoring 15 goals and doing most of their damage at home. If a team beats them or draws with them when they are out of Macedonia, they usually deliver a knockout blow on the return leg. A tight lead, or even gifting FK Shkëndija an away goal might mean that it’s all over for Milan, because they will need to be on top form for when they head to the Ecolog.
Besart Ibraimi is the danger man up front, and he does not stop scoring for Shkëndija and has five goals in the Europa League so far. Ibraimi leads the UEL in shots on target, with 20 through his games so far. That’s seven more than the next best and follows this up with 10 shots off target - 30 altogether. Feran Hasani has added three assists as well.
An Italian team has never lost to a Macedonian team in European competition - let’s hope that doesn’t change.