One Cheer for Sheriff Tiraspol
Sheriff Tiraspol are the first Moldovan football team ever to compete in the Champions League. They beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 in their opening game on 15 September, and face Real Madrid tonight.
The Moldovan Football Federation was founded in 1990, a year before the country declared independence from the Soviet Union. The national team’s first game was against Georgia, in July 1991. They lost. In 1994 they won both games against Georgia in the preliminary rounds for Euro 96, and also beat Wales in Chișinău (all three teams failed to qualify). In 1996, David Beckham made his debut for England in a 3-0 World Cup qualifier at the Republican Stadium. In 2003 UEFA and FIFA said the pitch was no longer good enough for international games. The two organisations offered to pay for its refurbishment, but the government closed the stadium in 2007 and a series of deals eventually saw the land sold to the US government for its new embassy.
None of Sheriff Tiraspol’s starting eleven has Moldovan citizenship. (The Brazilian-born Henrique Luvannor, who used to play for Moldova until Fifa ruled him ineligible, scored four goals in four games for Sheriff Tiraspol in the Champions League qualifying rounds over the summer, but was sold to the Saudi Arabian club Al-Taawoun at the end of August.) The team’s cosmopolitan make-up would be something to celebrate if it didn’t throw light on Moldova’s underfunded sports infrastructure, and the source of the money that allowed the club to buy its high-performing international players.
Founded in 1997, Sheriff Tiraspol is based in the breakaway state of Transnistria, the strip of land between the Nistru river and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. The stadium cost £145 million. The owners of the club, Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, are former KGB officers with close ties to the unrecognised Transnistrian government. And the Sheriff corporation owns pretty much everything in the Russian-controlled enclave, including its only petrol station chain, telephone network, supermarket chain, TV channel, publishing house and distillery. The few billboards in Transnistria either show government slogans or advertise Sheriff. ‘We might as well call Transnistria the Sheriff Republic,’ Arcadie Zaporojanu, a Moldovan football agent, told me.
The writer Ion Hadârcă was one of Moldova’s first MPs. At the end of 1990, he says, Gorbachev tried to force the parliament in Chișinău to sign the New Union Treaty (which would have retroactively legalised the USSR’s 1940 occupation of Moldova) by threatening to create two autonomous regimes in Transnistria and Gagauz Yeri. Moldova refused to sign. A short but bloody war came to an end with a ceasefire in July 1992. Since then, the political regime in Transnistria, largely funded by the Kremlin, has maintained a Soviet-era flag, its own currency (the rouble), a Supreme Soviet and a KGB. It has also benefited from ‘free’ gas from Russia – which Russia says Chișinău needs to pay for.
In the recent Russian Duma elections, Moscow opened 27 polling stations in Transnistria. Russian soldiers are still based in the territory, though the Kremlin signed an international agreement to withdraw them in 1999. Moldova’s lack of control over the Transnistrian border with Ukraine means it can do nothing to prevent smuggling.
Football has been one of the few ways in which Transnistria is integrated into Moldovan life. UEFA rules mean that Sheriff Tiraspol has to represent Moldova rather than Transnistria at international games. Matches at the Sheriff Tiraspol stadium are the only times the Moldovan flag is raised in Transnistria. ‘Where politics cannot generate solutions, football becomes an ambassador. We have hopes for a united Moldova,’ says Leonid Oleinicenco, the president of the Moldovan Football Federation.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Beyond the symbolic integration, the fact that Sheriff Tiraspol plays in the Moldovan National Division in order to qualify for the Champions League doesn't do much for the national game. ‘Moldovan football has more to lose than to gain from a team like Sheriff Tiraspol,’ Zaporojanu says. Winning the league nineteen times since 1998, Sheriff Tiraspol totally dominates Moldovan football. Its budget, estimated at £3.5 million a year, is six to twelve times that of other teams.
The Ukrainian FA, for example, requires that every team has at least four Ukrainian players. Since a rule change in 2020, the Moldovan Football Federation requires none. ‘You didn’t call me to do this interview two years ago,’ Oleinicenco told me. ‘You did it now. By bringing in international players, the Moldovan Football Federation aimed to increase local competitiveness.’ As evidence he pointed to Zimbru Chișinău’s 1-1 draw with Sheriff Tiraspol on 19 September.
For every foreign player bought by one of its teams, the Moldovan Football Federation gets about £3500, which goes towards funding under-21s. Some clubs with a lot of young players have received as much as £30,000 as a result, which is a lot of money for Moldovan teams that aren’t Sheriff Tiraspol.
But it hasn’t (yet) done anything to help the national team. Moldova has fallen to its worst ever position in the FIFA rankings –180th, down four places from last year. ‘There are still stadiums that have no light or hot water,’ Oleinicenco says. ‘Parents would sometimes forbid their children from going to training because there’s no light on the road, no public transport, and the stadium is in the next village … Football is an industry that reflects on the economic state of the country.’ Still, Moldova’s best FIFA ranking was 37th, in September 2008, and poverty alone can’t explain the fall of 143 places. ‘Football is a state within a state,’ Zaporojanu says, ‘so this poor result does not just reflect on the country, but also on the problems within local football.’