Macedonian hero says stadium move is win for Aberdeen
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