While the fixture list for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers offer most European teams a gentle return to international action, the opening game in Group G between Albania and Macedonia promises to be a fiery affair for both sides involved, on and off the pitch.
Back in Naser Aliji’s hometown of Kumanovo in north east Macedonia, friends and family will be glued to screens showing the game, hoping the Kaiserslautern full-back can continue to build on his fledgling international career. None though will be wearing the red and yellow of Macedonia, and neither will Aliji.
“Everyone back home will be rooting for Albania,” Aliji told Panorama’s Ermal Kuka. “Not just because of me, we have always been like this. We are all Albanians.”
Aliji, 22, grew up in Switzerland but was born in Kumanovo to parents from Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian community, which makes up an estimated 25 percent of the total population of the young Balkan republic. The left-back is one of a number of ethnic Albanians with roots in the former-Yugoslavia that have recently been granted citizenship by the Albanian state and welcomed into the Albanian national team by coach Gianni Di Biasi.
While some players had to be coaxed away from other national sides, Aliji was always committed to representing Albania. “There has been interest from Switzerland and Macedonia, but I am Albanian, and my heart said I should wear the red and black shirt,” he told Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore in 2014.
In the build up to the game which will see him pitted against the country of his birth, Aliji is trying to remain focused on football. “Of course it is a special occasion,” the 22-year-old conceded to Kuka. “But I will try to forget about that during the match.”
Others are less committed to remaining calm. Though Aliji is the first player born in Macedonia to wear the red and black of the Albania national team on the pitch, Albanians from Macedonia have been providing support from the terraces for years.
Krenar Osmani is from Tetovo in north west Macedonia and a member of Ballistet, a supporters’ group for Tetovo’s KF Shkendija, last season’s Macedonian Cup winners. Ballistet are frequent attendees of matches involving Albania.
“We are emotional for every game involving the Albania national team because we love Albania more than life itself,” Osmani told ESPN FC. And Monday is undoubtedly a special occasion.
“When it comes to games against [our Slavic neighbours], our adrenaline increases 10 times more, he added. “This is one of those games where, if it’s necessary, our hearts will be left on the pitch just so the game is won.”
Around 400 members of Ballistet are expected to travel to Shkoder for Monday night’s match, guaranteeing a red hot atmosphere in the Loro Borici stadium.
One man who won’t be in the stadium is Omer Bunjaku. Bunjaku is the leader of Shvercerat, a supporters group for FK Shkupi, a team from Skopje mostly supported by the city’s ethnic minorities, especially Albanians.
According to Bunjaku, Shvercerat were the first fan group from outside of the Albanian state to regularly attend Albania matches. But on Monday night he will be staying in Skopje “to protect [his] neighborhood if the match causes trouble.”
As well as Aliji, two other ethnic Albanians from Macedonia are likely to feature in the match. Besart Ibraimi and Ferhan Hasani are both starters at KF Shkendija and were named in the Macedonian squad to face Albania. Asked how he feels about ethnic Albanians representing Macedonia, Bunjaku simply replied: “Traitors.”
Having qualified for Euro 2016, Albania will start the match as strong favourites, though both teams have personnel issues going into the game. The retirement of former captain Lorik Cana and an injury to Arlind Ajeti means the less experienced Berat Djimsiti will start alongside Mergim Mavraj in the centre of defence for Albania.
Meanwhile, Macedonia will be without Palermo’s Aleksandar Trajkovski, their top scorer during the Red Lions’ disappointing Euro 2016 qualification campaign in which they lost eight of their 10 matches.
With both sides depleted and desperate to take points in a group that also includes Spain and Italy, it should be a tense night in Shkoder in a match that, for many of both nations’ fans, will be a test of nerves and family commitment.