Once the biggest football club in North Macedonia, Vardar has fallen on hard times — broke, homeless, and without enough cash to pay its players.
For decades from its perch in the capital Skopje, Vardar was the envy of the nation — winning a litany of titles both domestically and across the former Yugoslavia.
But the club is now a mere shadow of itself, relegated to North Macedonia’s second league, where it relies on hand-me-down equipment and substandard practice facilities.
To make ends meet, the club’s ultras — known as the Komiti — have helped fill in the gaps, with fundraisers, handouts and an undying presence in the stands to cheer on their forlorn team.
“I have been a fan of Vardar since my birth,” Jane Petkovski, 36, tells AFP. “I will be a fan of Vardar until my last breath.”
The Balkan nation of less than two million has long been football crazy. There are three domestic leagues despite its tiny population.
North Macedonia has also enjoyed some promising results on the international stage — including qualifying for Euro 2020 along with beating Germany and Italy in a failed bid to reach last year’s World Cup finals.
At home, Vardar was long a force, with 11 titles in the First Macedonian League, five Macedonian cups and two super cups to its name.
– Broke –
The team’s fall from grace largely began in 2021 after Vardar’s owner — Russian businessman Sergey Samsonenko — withdrew his investments and sold the club, leaving the organisation millions in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.
Unable to cover its most basic bills, the team stopped paying players’ salaries and was unable to afford the necessary fees to play in Skopje’s Tose Proeski National stadium, where it had performed for decades.
Since then, matches have been held in much smaller venues, with the stands only able to accommodate a few hundred fans.
The timing of its acute financial crisis was brutal.
With pandemic restrictions still in full effect in 2021, supporters were unable to attend games, stripping the team of another source of revenue.
But fans rallied and began selling tickets to a “ghost game”, raising tens of thousands of euros to help cover costs.
“Every team… has ups and downs and we stand together, we mourn together, we do the best we can to support each other,” says Pierre Nobbe, who travelled from Germany with a group of Schalke supporters this month to attend a match.
The club’s supporters have launched a number of initiatives to help cover costs, including fundraisers and memorabilia raffles.
“We organise actions to help the club, gather funds in front of the stadium by buying tickets or we donate specially for the players,” says Milorad Milenkovski, 45, one of the leaders of the Vardar’s ultras.
Since the end of the pandemic’s restrictions, supporters have also flocked back to games — waving red and black flags, lighting flares and leading chants in ramshackle venues on Skopje’s outskirts.
– ‘We are crazy’ –
New ownership unfortunately has not brought the team much stability, with salaries still going unpaid and talent fleeing to other clubs.
Despite the mounting odds stacked against Vardar, the team is hoping a late-season surge will improve its fortunes.
Vardar is just a win away from being back in the First Football League, which would likely pave the way for new investors and much needed cash.
On Sunday, Vardar will face off against rivals Skopje in a one-game play-off that holds the keys back to the first league.
“We play without money and simply with the best fans,” Vardar’s goalkeeper Filip Gacevski, 32, tells AFP.
“We simply give superhuman efforts for the club. Some say that we are crazy, but really we are positively crazy.”