Macedonia’s American Dream

Slobodanka Jovanovska Skopje

“One name we have and it is in our hearts,” so goes Macedonia’s new, unofficial national anthem following the country’s European Basketball Championship success.

Macedonia is living out its American dream, made possible by Bo McCalebb, the American basketball player who decided to take Macedonian citizen and coach the team, helping them take fourth place in the European basketball championship.

Thousands of Macedonians turned out on Monday at the airport to greet McCalebb and the team. The players travelled in an open-top bus to the capital’s central square, accompanied by revellers determined to celebrate what is being seen as the nation’s biggest sporting success to date.

Coming fourth may not be cause for celebration in other nations, but Macedonians have become used to being at the bottom of sporting championships. One common joke about Macedonian swimmers questions if they reached the end or just sunk.

So the team’s surprise success has been relished by Macedonians from all ethnic groups.

“Despite the fact it is a working day today, nobody is working,” observed commentators on national television, while broadcasting live footage of the team’s arrival at the airport after travelling home from Lithuania, the championship was hosted.

The schools were open but students were out of class; many of them at the airport and most draped with Macedonian flags – a sight not seen on this scale ever before.

The government put on 20 free buses to ferry people to the main square in Skopje, where fans celebrated their success under the gaze of the controversial, giant statue of Alexander the Great.

Under the government’s building project - Skopje 2014 – it seems almost any person of note will eventually have their own statue. It was, therefore, only logical that calls were heard for the basketball team to get their own monuments too.

Ethnic Unity 

Of course, there is a political angle to these celebrations, as there is with everything in this nation. Congratulations were voiced by the president, the government, the opposition party and – most notably – by Ali Ahmeti, leader of the Albanian DUI party that is part of the coalition government. 

This gesture was notable, as many ethnic Albanians still regard themselves as separate from the Macedonian mainstream. While perhaps not so euphoric in their celebrations, ethnic Albanians are certainly supporting the national team.

Ethnic Albanian commentators stressed it would be difficult for them to do so, as there are tensions over Macedonia’s flag and patriotic songs. However, ethnic Albanians took part in the celebrations and many joined the revellers on the streets and in the main square.

McCalebb, a relatively obscure basketball player from New Orleans who went on to become one of Europe’s top players, was the undisputed star of the celebrations.

While the US media has marvelled at his success, Macedonians have simply fallen in love with him, calling him a ‘true Macedonian’ – despite the fact the number of black citizens here can be counted on one hand.

He has even been given the Macedonian name of Borche Makelebovski, albeit unofficially.

The man himself admits he barely knew where Macedonia was before he arrived, but says he likes the country. His adopted homeland certainly likes him.

Of course, the fact Macedonia beat the Greek basketball team made their success all the sweeter, something that was reflected in the new, unofficial anthem: “One name we have and it is in our hearts”.

Slobodanka Jovanovska is a Skopje-based journalist who is participating in the 2011 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

She will be writing regular updates on her investigation into extradition agreements in the Balkans and in European Union member states.

Fellow Bio

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Slobodanka Jovanovska

Slobodanka Jovanovska is foreign affairs editor at the Macedonian daily newspaper Utrinski Vesnik. 

Topic

Topic 2011: Justice

The topic for this year’s programme is justice and fellows are investigating subjects as diverse as privatisation, organised crime, employment law, rape convictions and extradition treaties.

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