On 25 August 2021, countless football pundits and fans were left open-mouthed in amazement when a completely unknown team – Sheriff Tiraspol – qualified for the 2021/2022 group stages of the UEFA Champions League, the prestigious competition for Europe’s top professional clubs. The rank outsider then secured an impressive victory over football giants Real Madrid in late September, heightening the sporting world’s fascination with this tiny club. FC Sheriff is an outsider in two respects. First, it comes from Moldova, a relatively small republic not previously noted for its footballing prowess. And second, the club is based in the capital of Transnistria, which declared its independence in 1990 and, since then, has been classed as a de facto state.
FC Sheriff Tiraspol
FC Sheriff Tiraspol was founded in 1996 as a regional football club by the name of FC Tiras Tiraspol and has been sponsored by the Transnistrian Sheriff corporation since 1998. In Tiraspol, the club is based at its own sports complex, built in 2000, which includes not only a stadium but also swimming and tennis facilities and a sports academy. It is the most modern stadium in Transnistria and the Republic of Moldova and regularly hosts the Moldovan national team’s home games.
FC Sheriff operates as a Moldovan club; it would not be able to play in the Champions League otherwise. The Republic of Moldova is a member of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), which generally only admits associations from internationally recognised states. There are occasional exceptions: Kosovo – currently recognised by 115 countries – has been a member of UEFA since 2016.
The journey to the Champions League
Like professional football in Europe and worldwide, FC Sheriff’s success has a lot to do with hard cash. Sponsorship and loans of good international players have been crucial in putting the club on its trajectory to success. It now serves as a springboard for players from Eastern Europe, South America and Africa. Out of 30 players in the Sheriff Tiraspol squad, only a handful come from Moldova and fewer still come from Transnistria itself. The majority hail from Africa, South America and Europe. The current coach is Ukrainian.
There is another significant factor at play: since declaring its independence, Transnistria has yet to set up its own football league, unlike other de facto states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Northern Cyprus. Their football leagues and associations are not recognised by FIFA and cannot play international matches.
De facto states often opt to join the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), which organises competitions for international football teams from territories, nations and regions with various forms of statehood and backgrounds. Unlike Transnistria, all the post-Soviet de facto states are CONIFA members, including clubs in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine. Transnistria is something of a special case: under an agreement with Moldova, Transnistrian clubs are permitted to play in the Moldovan league and can therefore take part in international tournaments. A similar arrangement in Georgia or Ukraine is unthinkable at present.
The masterminds of success
The club takes its name from the Sheriff corporation, which was founded by Viktor Gushan, now the president of Sheriff Tiraspol, and his business partner Ilya Kasmaly in the early 1990s. Since then, the company has greatly expanded its reach as a result of numerous highly profitable but opaque business deals in Transnistria. Sheriff now controls around 60 per cent of the Transnistrian economy; moreover, since the early days of Transnistrian independence, it has established excellent relations with the de facto government and is now a dominant force in Transnistria both politically and economically.
The club will receive 20.6 million euros for reaching the group stages of the Champions League; the team is currently estimated to be worth 12 million euros. For the club and its president, this represents both prestige and a sound investment. But what sparked Gushan’s initial interest in sponsoring the club? That’s difficult to say. It may be a hobby that he shares with other oligarchs. It may be a cover for money-laundering – often a motive behind the purchase or sponsorship of football clubs, and an allegation levelled at the corporation for some time. Or it may be motivated by a desire to show the globalised and commercialised world of football that with or without diplomatic recognition, a respected football club can exist in a de facto state like Transnistria.
Transnistria’s de facto statehood
The Tiraspol club’s participation in the Champions League has no effect on relations between Moldova and the breakaway republic of Transnistria, less still the conflict. If anything, it shows that this is, in some ways, a well-functioning relationship despite the political and ideological differences.
And while football clubs are often a rallying symbol, FC Sheriff Tiraspol seems unlikely to boost Transnistrian national sentiment, not least because there are very few local players on the team. As for the Republic of Moldova, its reaction is expected to be both pragmatic and sportsmanlike, with pride in the success of what is, on the face of it, a Moldovan team.
For Moldovan and Transnistrian football, and particularly corporate sponsorship of the sport, nothing will change. Neither cash-strapped Transnistria nor Moldova itself is in a position to sponsor the sport. And while the Sheriff corporation will continue to grow the club, FC Sheriff is not the only game in town. There are a few other smaller Transnistrian clubs playing in Moldova’s second and third divisions and hoping to attract local sponsors. Failing that, they may be forced to close due to a lack of up-and-coming players and funding.
The return match against multiple Champions League winner Real Madrid, due to take place in Tiraspol on 24 November, might encourage some international fans to travel to this tiny de facto state. That would raise Transnistria’s profile and perhaps even generate some revenue. But when it comes to bringing people together and bridging the divide between Transnistria and Moldova, it is the matches between second- and third-division Transnistrian and Moldovan clubs that really count.