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MIKE KEELER: This Goal Was For You, Madame Secretary

She was born Marie Jana Korbelova, in 1937, in a troubled place known at the time as Czechoslovakia. When she was just a year old, Hitler occupied her country, and her family was forced to flee to England, where they converted from Judaism to Catholicism. At the close of World War 2, they returned to Prague, and her father became press attache to the embassy in Belgrade, so they moved to a place that was then known as Yugoslavia. But trouble struck again, that country was taken over by the Soviet Union, and the family had to flee to the United States.

Given this fractured childhood, it’s no surprise that Marie – now known as Madeleine – would be drawn to statecraft. She founded an international relations club at her prep school; she studied political science at Wellesley; she became a U.S. citizen; she married a prominent journalist named Albright and converted again, this time to Episcopalianism; she continued her studies at Hofstra, Johns Hopkins and Columbia; she wrote her PhD on the Prague Spring; and somewhere along the way, she took a course by some guy named Zbigniew Brzezinski.

All of which led to her rise through the diplomatic corps and eventually to be chosen by President Clinton to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, in 1993. In that role she tried – and notably failed – to get to the bottom of a developing disaster in Rwanda. By the time the world finally started paying attention, some 800,000 Tutsi minority were dead, victims of genocide by the country’s Hutu majority. Madeleine Albright swore she wouldn’t let such a thing happen on her watch again.

And then Yugoslavia came apart. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the republics of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia declared their independence from the central government in Belgrade, which was controlled by a Serb majority. The result was a series of brutal ethnic reprisals in which the Serbs – among other things – laid waste to Sarajevo, committed genocide in Srebrenica, and engaged in extensive atrocities across the region. But, given the tortured history of the Balkans, nobody in Europe wanted to deal with it.

It was just then that Clinton needed a new Secretary of State, and he chose Madeleine Albright. As the now-highest ranking female in the history of the American government, she helped focus the world’s attention on the crisis. When Serbia attempted to repeat their campaign of ethnic cleansing, this time in Kosovo, Secretary Albright galvanized a unified NATO response that included 30,000 peacekeepers on the ground, and a 78-day bombing campaign against Belgrade. It was criticized in many quarters, but it proved highly effective. Albright helped broker a fragile resolution of the crisis, created some stability in the region, and helped convict several Serb leaders on charges of genocide, for which they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

This past week there were a couple of final footnotes to the story. On Wednesday, Madeleine Albright died at the age of 84, shortly after predicting in the New York Times that, “invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance. Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors happen to be. In the modern era, great countries accept that, and so must Mr. Putin. That is the message undergirding recent Western diplomacy. It defines the difference between a world governed by the rule of law and one answerable to no rules at all.”

And then, just last night, came a final coda to her legacy. In a World Cup qualifying match in Palermo, the tiny, 31-year-old country of Macedonia – now called North Macedonia so as to not insult its Greek neighbors to the south – faced off against soccer titans and reigning European champions Italy. In the 92nd minute of a scoreless match in which the Italians were entirely dominant, Macedonian striker Aleksandar Trajkovski launched a 25-yard miracle screamer that beat the Italian keeper, stole the game for Macedonia, and knocked Italy out of the World Cup. You can see the pandemonium for yourself, here.

It’s a coming-of-age moment for young North Macedonia, with another challenge yet to come: if they can once again pull off the impossible, and beat Portugal next Tuesday night in Porto, they will qualify for the World Cup for the first time. And they would join former Yugoslav republics Bosnia (who qualified in 2014) and Croatia (who has become a perennial powerhouse) in making it to the world’s biggest stage.

Godspeed, Madame Secretary. And God willing, when World Cup 2026 qualifiers get underway, the peaceful and sovereign nation of Ukraine will be competing.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler

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