Macedonian hero says sta­dium move is win for Aberdeen

The Herald - Sport - - FOOTBALL, SWIMMING - PHIL GOR­DON

ABERDEEN have been spared a red-hot welcome on and off the pitch when they go to Mace­do­nia, ac­cord­ing the coun­try’s top player, Agim Ibraimi.

The Mari­bor winger feels that Derek McInnes’s side will ben­e­fit from Uefa switch­ing the Europa League first qual­i­fy­ing round, first-leg tie with Shk­endija to the cap­i­tal city of Skopje.

Ibraimi soothed Aberdeen’s fears about the heat by in­sist­ing that the tem­per­a­ture for the evening kick-off on Thurs­day will be about half that ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the heat of the day.

“In the evening it is not so hot,” said Ibraimi. “It’s about 20 de­grees. That is bet­ter for both teams to play good football.”

Ibraimi, how­ever, ac­knowl­edges that his boy­hood team, Shk­endija, will be de­prived of some of the pas­sion­ate back­ing they nor­mally en­joy in their home­town of Te­tovo by hav­ing to play in ‘en­emy ter­ri­tory’ at the na­tional sta­dium.

The Philip II Arena is the home ground of bit­ter ri­vals Var­dar. “This is like Celtic hav­ing to play a Euro­pean tie at Rangers’ ground,” said Ibraimi.

The gifted Ibraimi knows what he’s talk­ing about. He’s played at Park­head and Ibrox for Mari­bor in re­cent years, knock­ing both Celtic and Rangers out of Europe, and yearns for Shk­endija to match the Slove­nian gi­ant-killers.

The 26-year-old is poised to be named as Mace­do­nia’s foot­baller of the year for a third suc­ces­sive sea­son — match­ing the feat of Go­ran Pan­dev — af­ter his spec­tac­u­lar goal earned Mari­bor a draw against Chelsea in last sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League, a com­pe­ti­tion they reached by elim­i­nat­ing Ronny Deila’s Scot­tish cham­pi­ons.

Ibraimi be­gan his ca­reer with Shk­endija, mak­ing his de­but at 16, be­fore mov­ing as a teenager to Red Bull Salzburg and then to Tur­key and Italy, then back to Mari­bor from Cagliari last July

He grew up in the shad­ows of the Grad­ski Sta­dium, in Te­tovo, which is shared by three teams and is be­ing re­built, hence Uefa ask­ing for the tie to be shifted to Skopje.

“This is bet­ter for Aberdeen,” said Ibraimi. “If the game was played in Te­tovo then it would be very dif­fi­cult to play there be­cause of the at­mos­phere and the back­ing of the fans. They are Shk­endija’s 12th man. Skopje is where our big ri­vals, Var­dar, come from.”

The com­plex back­drop of Macedonian football has echoes of Glas­gow. The coun­try has deep di­vi­sions caused by eth­nic and re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, which not even the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent coun­try in 1991 — break­ing away from Yu­goslavia — have healed.

About 65 per cent of Mace­do­nia’s two mil­lion pop­u­la­tion are Macedonian and Eastern Ortho­dox Chris­tians — in­clud­ing Var­dar’s fans — while 34 per cent are Mus­lim, mostly eth­nic Al­ba­ni­ans like Ibraimi.

More than half of Te­tovo’s 53,000 in­hab­i­tants are Al­ba­nian and a gi­ant Al­ba­nian flag cov­ered the side of the Grad­ski when Par­ti­zan Bel­grade went there for a Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fier in 2011.

“The peo­ple live for Shk­endija,” said Ibraimi. “There is an ul­tras group, the Bal­lis­tet, who or­gan­ise lots of spec­tac­u­lar dis­plays but it’s not just them, it’s ev­ery­one who goes to the Grad­ski. All the sup­port­ers are fa­nat­i­cal, it’s like Celtic.

“I played for Shk­endija’s youth team and then for the first team at 16. I went from watch­ing the team ev­ery Satur­day to play­ing. I was so proud. I had 45 games be­fore I joined Salzburg. I have played in four coun­tries now, but I owe my ca­reer to Shk­endija.

“Aberdeen will only be Shk­endija’s fourth Euro­pean tie but I be­lieve that soon they will be in the Cham­pi­ons League or Europa League qual­i­fi­ca­tion stages ev­ery sea­son. That is what Mari­bor have done. First, we got into the Europa League group stage in 2011 when we beat Rangers. Then we got to the Cham­pi­ons League group by beat­ing Celtic and we drew at home to Chelsea.

“Slove­nia is small coun­try but that na­tional team has reached fi­nals and now Mari­bor are do­ing well in Europe. Hope­fully, Shk­endija can do the same for us.”

If the game was played in Te­tovo then it would have been very dif­fi­cult for Aberdeen be­cause of the at­mos­phere and the back­ing of the sup­port­ers

PRIDE: Mari­bor’s Agim Ibraimi is Mace­do­nia’s top player

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