CRAIG HOPE’S POSTCARD FROM SKOPJE: Stray dogs, jugglers and pirate ships… just avoid the taxis!

  • Mail Sport’s Craig Hope is in North Macedonia ahead of England’s qualifier 
  • The Three Lions will complete their qualifying campaign on Monday night 
  • Chris Sutton is stunned by Ian Ladyman’s England Euro XI: It’s All Kicking Off

Taxis are always a good starting point of any foreign dispatch, primarily because they’re the first thing you encounter.

Here, in chilly Skopje and minus the comfort blanket of Uber, you are thrown to the stray dogs of this capital city in an effort to catch a lift. Remember that, flagging your hand at a roadside?

Those dogs, by the way, have tremendous road sense. I actually took my lead from one when crossing a cobbled side street last night.

Anyhow, taxis. I had read they were cheap. They weren’t from the airport, £22 for a 20-minute journey that I have since learnt will cost £6 for the return in a city cab on Monday.

Saying that, my driver did burn half a tank of fuel in pursuit of the North Macedonia team coach, which he spotted on the highway ahead. The team had just returned from Italy after their 5-2 defeat on Friday. I caught the moment on video, Max-edonia Verstappen shouting ‘crazy Balkans’ as he accelerated towards the bus.

Mail Sport’s Craig Hope is in North Macedonia ahead of England’s qualifier

Stray dogs are a present throughout the streets of the North Macedonian capital

Pirate ships on the Vardar River add character to the capital of North Macedonia 

Preparing to check-in at my hotel a few minutes later, the same coach pulled up outside. Wonderful, another chance to capture some footage (multimedia, you see).

Content that my content was in the can, it was then that I realised I was now at the back of a 40-strong party of footballers and support staff that were checking-in ahead of me. I hope you guys enjoy that video (available on our Mail Sport YouTube channel from tomorrow).

But good things come to those who wait (and wait) and one hour later than planned I found a city in Skopje that is insanely alluring. Insane in that it is utterly bonkers, where a curious collection of statues outnumber the streetwise hounds. 

It is like a dream invaded by a maelstrom of random thoughts and making little sense — Mother Theresa’s house, pirate ships on the Vardar River, motorbikes tearing through the Old Bazaar and boys juggling bowling pins at traffic lights for Denar coins.

There is, though, nothing more quintessentially Eastern European than a bar in a concrete underpass with a Macedonian singer performing Pink Floyd and The Scorpions, where the price of beer is low, the smoke rings rise high and the volume of the band even higher. 

England will travel to in chilly Skopje for their Euro 2024 qualifier on Monday evening

There was plenty to see throughout the chilly streets of Skopje, North Macedonia

I later had to apologise to BBC Five Live commentator John Murray, my fellow northerner. It was my idea to sample this assault on the senses, and the last thing he needs is a hoarse voice. This was no place for John’s delicate, hushed tones of ‘And here we are, approaching the 18th green at St Andrews’.

Around the corner, in Macedonia Square at the heart of the city, brutalist Communist architecture clashes with neon-lighted capitalism, and a giant monument of Alexander the Great — his horse reared on hind legs — is ready to take on all-comers. England’s hotel is here, above a casino. That might have felt like more of a gamble if there was something riding on this game.

As it is, Harry Kane and Co should take in this peculiar yet charming ex-Yugoslav outpost. Just avoid the taxis, lads. My journey home on Sunday night was completed in spasms, slowing almost to a stop to avoid less-savvy canines, jugglers and speed bumps as brutal as the high-rise flats.

Still, it only cost me four quid. At least that’s what I think he asked for, my ears were still ringing from the sound of Pink Floyd.


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