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Frantic Football: First-Time Champions In North Macedonia And Luxembourg, Match-Fixing Scandal Rocks Belarus – Groningen Rocked By Relegation

Groningen Fan Trouble

A supporter storms the field during the Dutch Premier league football match between FC Groningen and Ajax Amsterdam at the Euroborg stadium in Groeningen, on May 14, 2023 in Groningen. (Photo by Cor Lasker / various sources / AFP)

By Neel Shelat.

Seasons have ended, champions have been crowned and teams have been relegated in various parts of Europe this month, so let us go over four of the biggest stories in May.

🇲🇰 North Macedonia: Struga scale the domestic summit eight years after inception

We have already had seven first-time champions crowned across the men’s top-flight leagues in Europe this year, and they’ve come in all shapes and sizes. We have touched on all of them on the Frantic Football Podcast, but we will take a closer look at a couple of them in this column.

In North Macedonia, a club called FC Struga Trim-Lum have won the top-flight just eight years after their inception. Based in the south-western town of Struga, a popular tourist destination, they are owned by the Trim & Lum construction company which was founded in the town but has since expanded across the country.

FC Struga are one of many Albanian clubs in the Macedonian top-flight, and some detractors allege they have connections to the Albanian mafia in the region. Either way, one of the keys to their success certainly has been the investment from the Trim & Lum company, which has helped them rise up the leagues in a very short span of time.

They started off in the regional fourth tier in 2015, but soon won back-to-back promotion to get up to the second tier in 2017. After a couple of seasons there, they became the first team from Struga to reach the First League after winning promotion in 2019. They finished plum last in 2020, but stayed up because relegation was suspended that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A third-placed finish in the subsequent season saw them make their European debut, but they only followed that up with a mid-table finish down in sixth place in 2021/22. They made a fair few notable signings that summer, including ex-Schalke striker Besart Ibraimi who had spent six years at four-time champions Shkëndija recently.

He went on to bag 19 goals to win the league’s golden boot and got six assists too as he contributed to half of their 53 league goals. Crucially, though, they had a watertight defence as they conceded just 19 goals in 30 games, going on to win the league by a ten-point margin in the end.

🇱🇺 Luxembourg: Swift Hesperange end 107-year wait for league title

The story of the first-time champions in Luxembourg is slightly different, as they are over 13 times older than FC Struga.

Founded way back in 1916, Swift Hesperange obviously are among the oldest clubs in Luxembourg, but they are far from the most successful. In fact, their only major title before this year was the 1989/90 Cup. With that came their first and only European appearance for a century in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

A prominent season in their recent history is 2012/13, when they suffered their most recent relegation. Of course, that would have felt quite bad at the time, but it might have turned out to be a blessing in disguise in the long run. The reason behind that is that they were taken over by local businessman Flavio Becca, a boyhood fan of the club.

Becca had history in the Luxembourgian football scene, having financed the very successful F91 Dudelange after their birth following a merger of some clubs in the 1990s. That experience seemed to help in charge of Swift Hesper, as they took the fast lane to success.

They won promotion at the end of the 2019/20 season, following it up with a very impressive third-placed finish in the top-flight to mark their European return. All that was left was topping it all off with a first league title, which is just what they did this season with a fantastic record of 100 goals scored and just one defeat in 30 matches.

🇧🇾 Belarus: No champions after match-fixing scandal

After discuss two first-time champions, let us now go over to Belarus where the punishments handed out in the aftermath of a match-fixing scandal have left us without any champions from the 2022 season.

In fact, both of the top two have been found guilty, meaning Shakhtyor Soligorsk have been stripped of the title and second-placed Energetik BKU have also lost their European spot. Third-placed BATE Borisov have benefitted as a result of this as they will get Shakhtyor Soligorsk’s spot in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers, but they will not get the title.

There has been some drama behind them as fourth and fifth-placed Dinamo Minsk and FC Isloch have been given spots in the Europa Conference League qualifiers, but the last of those has gone to eighth-placed cup finalists Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino as both FC Minsk and Gomel failed to obtain UEFA licenses.

The guilty parties also include Belshina Bobruisk, who have received a major points deduction this season. They are likely to be relegated, while Shakhtyor Soligorsk and Energetik-BKU will face an uphill battle to stay in the top flight.

It is often said that football can show a reflection of wider society, so this scandal is a big stain not just for Belarusian football but Belarus as a whole.

🇳🇱 Netherlands: Groningen fans struggle to digest relegation

The Eredivisie season drew to a close this weekend, with big stories at either end of the table. Feyenoord’s title triumph stole headlines across Europe, but there has been a big relegation too.

FC Groningen’s two-decade-long Eredivisie stay has ended as they have suffered just their second-ever direct relegation, and their third in their 50+ year history. They did finish as high as seventh a couple of years ago, but the warning signs were there when they only stayed up by a couple of points last time around. Nevertheless, their squad for the season looked alright on paper, but they just could not get things clicking.

After dropping into the bottom two around the midway point of the season, Groningen never managed to claw their way out. A managerial change in December that saw Dennis van der Ree take charge did not seem to set things right either, and in the end, the writing clearly was on the wall.

Still, a section of supporters at Euroborg struggled to accept the inevitable. There have been a number of unsavoury incidents in Groningen’s home matches this season involving fan trouble.

A couple of their matches have also been abandoned and resumed in an empty stadium a couple of days later as fans threw flares onto the pitch to make their dissatisfaction known. Surely, though, this toxic environment would not have helped the players in this relegation battle.

Either way, the 22,000-seater Eurborg will be an Eerste Divisie stadium next season, and it should be interesting to see how full it gets.

Stats courtesy of Transfermarkt.

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