Sheriff Tiraspol’s historic outing at the Santiago Bernabeu this week will put the Moldovan club firmly on the map of elite European football.
Ironically, Real Madrid fans would be hard pressed to locate Tiraspol on an actual map of Europe.
Winner of the Moldovan National Division year after year and listed by Uefa as Moldovan, everything is pointing to Moldova. Well, yes. And also no. Depends.
Despite its total dominance of the Moldovan league, the club does not identify as Moldovan.
Instead, it represents Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognized breakaway Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, more commonly known as Transnistria.
This sliver of land east of the Dnieper river from Moldova’s capital Chisinau refused to give up sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union, resulting in war with Moldova that ended in a state of frozen conflict to this day.
When Real Madrid travel to Tiraspol for the away leg of the Uefa Champions League group stage encounter, they will do so despite the recommendation of the Spanish foreign ministry to avoid Transnistria as it is a “risk zone” not controlled by Moldovan authorities.
Tourist visits to Transnistria are tightly controlled and the Soviet past feels very present in the region, where the passports, the buildings, the de facto border controls and even its currency still bear the hammer and sickle.
In Tiraspol, statues of Lenin dot the streets and many locals speak Russian, not Moldovan.
The Russian tricolor flag is the second standard of Transnistria after the official flag, unchanged since the Moldovan SSR.
In most other circumstances, FC Sheriff’s underdog story would drum up national pride but it has instead stirred debate, according to Anatolie Esanu, an investigative reporter for the Ziarul de Garda (ZdG) media outlet in Moldova.
“After Sheriff Tiraspol qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, there was an intense debate on social media,” he told Efe. “There were those who considered it a great result for Moldova because, although Sheriff comes from a separatist region, they represent the Republic of Moldova.
“However, there are many more who consider Sheriff to be a ‘foreign’ club and that it’s achievement this year only serves to boost the club’s hegemony in the Republic of Moldova in the coming years,” he added.
Even at home, Sheriff Tiraspol does not draw in the kind of fanatical support enjoyed by Real Madrid and most other big European clubs, he added.
“A lot of fans will go to these Champions League games to see the rival teams,” he added.
“It’s not every year that Real Madrid or Inter Milan come to the Republic of Moldova, it’s a unique opportunity and people will go to see these teams, not to support Sheriff.”
Sheriff Tiraspol did not field a single Moldovan player in their earlier group stage match, he added.
The team is stocked with a host of international players including Brazilians Cristiano da Silva Leite, Fernando Peixoto Costanza and Sousa Da Silva Bruno Felipe, Colombians Danilo Arboleda and Frank Andersson Castañeda or Peruvian Gustavo Dulanto.
Real Madrid won their first LaLiga title back in 1931 and have gone on to win a total of 34, more than any other club in Spain’s top flight. If that seems impressive, Sheriff Tiraspol have won Moldova’s top league a record 19 times since its founding just 24 years ago.
The secret? Oligarchy.
Victor Gusan co-founded Sheriff in the tumultuous years that followed the war in Transnistria. He himself, narrowly avoided death when a bomb on the car he was traveling in killed all passengers apart from him.
Romanian former football player Florin Motroc, who was at Sheriff Tiraspol in the late 90s, recalled those years.
“It was half-time and we were losing. Gusan entered the changing room and threw a grenade on the floor. We all died of fright. Three minutes later he came back in and said: ‘If you don’t draw, the grenade after the game will be real’,” he told Efe.
Since then, Gusan, an alleged Ukrainian passport holder and former member of the KGB, has built a business empire that wields major influence over Trasnistrian politics and media.
Sheriff controls as much as 60% of the economy in the region, an obscure Moscow-friendly territory swilling with accusations of money laundering, arms trafficking and mafia activity. Founded by his Sheriff conglomerate in 1997, FC Sheriff play at the Sheriff stadium in Tiraspol, a stone’s throw from the Sheriff petrol station, right next to the Sheriff hotel and just down the road from the nearest Sheriff supermarket. You can keep up-to-date with FC Sheriff’s latest results on Sheriff-owned media.
“This year's performance of the Sheriff is of course an amazing one, many will praise it, but football fans in Europe should know that this team comes from a separatist state, whose financier, Victor Gusan, supports this separatism,” Esanu added in comments to Efe.
“European fans should also know that, for Chisinau authorities, the funding sources of this club are difficult (impossible) to really verify.”
Those funds are due to swell with the team’s participation in the Uefa Champions League while other teams in the Moldovan first division, such as Zimbru Chisinau, struggle to stay afloat.
Up and down Spain, and around the world, Real Madrid fans will tune in to watch the Spanish powerhouse take on the Tiraspol underdogs on Tuesday evening.
So too will football lovers in Moldova, where the Dniester divides politics, as well as allegiance. EFE