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Macedonia Soccer Movie Kicks Off Controversy

A screengrab from Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski's World War II soccer drama "The Third Half"

A screengrab from Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski's World War II soccer drama "The Third Half"

Soccer has always been a sport that lends itself to drama and it has been the source of many great stories that resonate beyond the field of play.

In addition to the frenetic thrills and spills of the game itself, the universal popularity and cross-border appeal of association football means that many stirring moments in the sport's history also end up being celebrated as part of a nation's folklore.

For example, the infamous "death match" between prisoners of war, who were former professional soccer players with Kyiv teams, and soldiers from the Nazi Wehrmacht, has become the stuff of legend in Ukraine and beyond.

The gripping story of how some local footballers paid the ultimate price for having the temerity to thrash a Nazi soccer team has become a source of national pride in Ukraine.

It's such an enthralling story that it has easily lent itself to movie adaptations -- inspiring a number of films such as "Escape to Victory," starring Sylvester Stallone, as well as the controversial "The Match," which sparked a major controversy ahead of the Euro 2012 finals, which Ukraine co-hosted.

Now, a Macedonian filmmaker has given the cinematic treatment to one of his country's most-venerated soccer stories, which has also sparked a row.

Darko Mitrevski's "The Third Half," which premiered at a festival in Bitola this week, tells the tale of the short-lived Skopje football club FC Macedonia.

Playing in the Bulgarian league at a time when Macedonia didn't officially exist, and coached by Jewish trainer Illes Spitz, this team defied all the odds to reach the Bulgarian national league final of 1942.

Bulgarian Outrage

Mitrevski's movie is essentially a love story based on the life of Macedonian Holocaust survivor Neta Cohen.

"The Third Half" depicts how a young Jewish girl from an affluent family defies her parents by dating a poor Macedonian football player. But their love overcomes this parental hostility and even saves the girl's life because she manages to escape being deported to the Treblinka death camp by eloping with her boyfriend.

With high production values and a classic Romeo-and-Juliet plotline set against the tumultuous backdrop of World War II, the film has every chance of being well received internationally.

It's not surprising, therefore, that "The Third Half" has already been nominated as the Macedonian entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.

WATCH: International trailer for "The Third Half"

In neighboring Bulgaria, however, the film has sparked outrage, with many saying that it paints a skewed picture of the deportation of Macedonian Jews to Nazi death camps.

Late last year, three Bulgarian members of the European Parliament called on the European commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Fuele, to censure Skopje for the movie, which they said was an "attempt to manipulate Balkan history" and "spread hate."

Bulgaria has often been praised for refusing to deport its Jews to its ally Germany in World War II. Nonetheless, it did deport Macedonian Jews after it occupied the region following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1941.

According to, only 2 percent of the Jews from Macedonia survived the Holocaust and some historians have intimated that Bulgaria handed them over to appease the Germans for protecting their own Jewish population from the Nazis.

Mitrevski has denounced the Bulgarian allegations, which he described as "foolish reactions." He has also slammed the use of what he calls "Goebbels-like production machinery" to deny Bulgaria's role in the Holocaust.

Old Sense Of Injustice

Ironically, despite the heated debate surrounding the movie, the real controversy for most hardcore football fans has nothing to do with historical accuracy.

For Macedonian soccer supporters, the film has reawakened an old sense of injustice because they believe FC Macedonia was robbed of the Bulgarian championship in 1942.

To this day, there are many people who still feel that the Skopje club was denied victory in the league final against Levski Sofia because of biased decision-making by referees who had conspired to ensure that a "non-Bulgarian" team would not win the national championship.

In 2010, FC Macedonia's last surviving member, goalkeeper Vasil Dilev, indicated that there was no doubt his team was by far the better side, thanks to the tutelage of the legendary Spitz.

"There are no more coaches like that," he said. "He turned Macedonia into a club that made the whole of Bulgaria shiver."

WATCH: Interview with FC Macedonia goalkeeper Vasil Dilev

-- Coilin O'Connor

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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