As Macedonian handball players were celebrating their 28:23 win against Bahrain at the World championship in Germany, Minister Damjan Mancevski called on them not to make any political statements during the tournament.

Several players were outspoken in their opposition to the name change, which the ruling SDSM party pushed through Parliament only hours after Macedonia beat Japan in its first match. Chants “Macedonia, Macedonia” from the players and the supporters took on the character of defiance, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s social media post congratulating them, in which he used the name “Macedonia”, drew scorn from commentators.

Politics should be left out of sports. Greetings to the handball players – politicians. Enough divisions, Mancevski wrote on his Twitter account, which again sparked a storm of responses critical of the minister.

SDSM recruited handball player Naumce Mojsoski to support their position in the referendum to rename Macedonia in September 2018.

Popular pivot Stojance Stoilov was particularly outspoken against the name change. Before the championship, Stoilov left a ceremony in Skopje when one of the participants began speaking in Albanian. The journalist of the Albanian language channel of the Macedonian public MRTV television, in response, refused to say his name during the first match, calling him “player number 5”, and in response Stoilov supporters posted pictures all over their social media accounts with the number 5. MRTV announced it will fine the journalist for his behavior.