MOLDOVA: Fans of European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan will see their teams face unusual competition this fall: a club from a tiny breakaway region in one of Europe’s least-known countries, Moldova.
After a few unsuccessful attempts, Sheriff FC make their debut this week as the first club from the former Soviet country to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
But their historic success highlights the divisions in the aftermath of a brief civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of Transnistria.
The small breakaway state has its own currency, border police, army and cellular network, but is not internationally recognized, which allows the sheriff to continue playing in the Moldovan league.
The Moldovan Football Federation celebrated the qualification as “EUROFANTASTIC !!! “, A sentiment shared by sports blogger Sandu Grecu, who called it” a massive achievement for Moldovan football “.
Not everyone is so happy.
“I don’t see a lot of reasons to be happy,” sports journalist Cristian Jardan said AFP.
“The team represents a separatist enclave where corruption, smuggling and underground economy deals are rife, which directly harm the budget and state interests of the Republic of Moldova.”
The Champions League place, he said, will only benefit Sheriff owners – “and nothing more”.
Founded in 1997, the young club based in the administrative center of the separatist region, Tiraspol, has steadily climbed to the fore.
They have won six consecutive Moldovan league titles and 19 of the last 21.
During a training session last weekend at Sheriff Stadium – soon to host Karim Benzema and Lautaro Martinez – coach Yuriy Vernydub was still in the process of qualifying for the Champions League.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it,” said the 55-year-old Ukrainian. AFP. “It’s a fairy tale”.
He acknowledged that there were political overtones at the time, but was optimistic about the opportunity it offered.
“People say sport is not politics,” said the 55-year-old. “Sport is politics.
The matches, he said optimistically, “are likely to unify” the supporters of Moldova and Transnistria.
Since 2009, the team have played four times in European second-tier competition, the Europa League, and have been eliminated twice in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
This year they’ve won a coveted Champions League group stage spot and around £ 16million (RM92million) in guaranteed prizes.
That’s a significant sum for a team whose entire squad is valued at just £ 12million (RM69million) and is overshadowed by their Group D rivals.
The specialized site Transfer market estimate Real Madrid have a squad worth £ 780million (RM 4.5 billion), Inter Milan players are valued at € 575million (RM 2.9 billion) and the 180 million euros of Shakhtar Donetsk (883 million RM).
In the weekend’s training, the team watched after their first Champions League game with Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday until their meeting with Real Madrid later this month.
Ghanaian midfielder Edmund Addo shouted: “Benzema! Benzema! ”As he dribbled past Brazilian defender Cristiano da Silva Leite, referring to the French forward Real’s superstar.
The Sheriff pair are part of a multinational line-up. Sunday for its opening match of the championship, the club fielded three Brazilians, two Greeks, two Colombians, a Peruvian, a Guinean, a Ghanaian, a Luxembourger and zero Moldovans.
Players do their research before arriving in the little-known pro-Russian separatist state.
Gustavo Dulanto, a 26-year-old Peruvian defender, messaged team captain Frank Castenada on Instagram and Googled Sheriff FC before heading to a separatist pitch one-fifth the size of Wales.
Yet politics is inescapable. The club belongs to the Sheriff conglomerate which holds the economic and political monopoly in Transnistria.
Founded by two Soviet policemen, the company is surrounded by allegations of corruption.
In Tiraspol, a town of about 130,000 inhabitants, the sheriff’s logo is everywhere: supermarkets, gas stations, even a casino. One of its co-founders, Viktor Gushan, is the president of Sheriff FC.
He built a sprawling complex comprising a 13,000-seat stadium, a 9,000-seat second stadium, an indoor arena, 16 training grounds, tennis courts and an indoor swimming pool.
Serghei Pascenco, a 38-year-old substitute goalkeeper born in Tiraspol and with the club since childhood, said the Champions League had always been “our president’s dream”.
Longtime supporter Igor Troshchinsky believes Gushan’s investments helped put Transnistria on the map.
“Even more people will find out that there is this unrecognized country,” the 61-year-old said of the sheriff’s qualification.
But Troshchinsky was less confident in his side’s Champions League chances.
“We were working towards these 20 years. In 10 years, maybe we’ll get out of the group stage, ”he joked. – AFP