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The stars of Real Madrid and Inter Milan will discover a team like no other: Sheriff Tiraspol, newcomer in the Champions League and representative of a nebulous separatist territory, Transdniestria.
This club will make its Group D debut on Wednesday against the Ukrainians of Shakhtar Donetsk at home, then will face at home in the fall the Spanish (13 C1) and Italian (3 titles) giants.
The Sheriff represents the capital of a pro-Russian separatist state of some 470,000 inhabitants which seceded, in the wake of the fall of the USSR in 1991, from the rest of Moldova, one of the most unrecognized.
Since then, Transdniestria, protected by Russian soldiers, has been de facto independent, even if no country in the world has recognized it.
But in terms of football, and in order to be in the UEFA system, Tiraspol, a city of 100,000 residents, is playing well in the Moldovan league. Competition in which the Sheriff has won 19 of the last 21 editions.
“People say that sport is not politics,” notes Yuriy Vernydub, Ukrainian coach of the Sheriff. But in reality, “sport is politics”.
Tiraspol supporters are delighted that their micro-state of 4,100 km2, or half the surface of Corsica, is found on the largest of the stands of European football to meet Karim Benzema and other Lautaro Martinez.
“More and more people are going to discover that this unrecognized country exists!” Exclaims Igor Trochtchinsky, 61 years old and a supporter of the Sheriff since its founding in 1997.
On the other side of the Dniester, the river separating the territory from the rest of Moldova, enthusiasm is less.
“This team represents a separatist enclave which finances itself through corruption, trafficking and the gray economy, directly causing damage to the budget, to the interests of the Republic of Moldova,” he continues.
The team belongs to the Sheriff conglomerate, whose empire includes supermarkets, gas stations, a mobile network, a sturgeon farm and the local cognac distillery.
Founded by two veterans of the police, including the current president of the club Victor Gushan, the parent company of Sheriff Tiraspol controls a large part of the economy of Transdniestria and is the kingmaker there on the political level.
The group has built for the club a sports complex worth 200 million dollars, with two stadiums, respectively 13,000 and 9,000 seats, a sports hall and 16 training grounds.
Sheriff Tiraspol, who had already known the Europa League, remains a sporting dwarf, with a workforce estimated at 11.8 million euros, according to the specialized site Transfermarkt, kopecks compared to Real’s 783.5 million or even to 183 , 8 million from the Shakhtar.
His starting XI in a league match on Sunday included Brazilians, Greeks, Colombians and even a Luxembourger. But not a single Moldovan.
Anyway, for the coach, the adventure in the Champions League is part of a “fairy tale”, which will lead Petit Poucet in the dens of mastodons: San Siro in Milan and the Santiago-Bernabéu in Madrid .
For the supporter Igor Trochtchinsky, the result of the matches does not matter, the important thing is to be there. “We’ve been working there for 20 years. In ten years, maybe, we’ll be able to get out of the group stage.”
On the political level, the Ukrainian coach, whose country of origin is also torn by a conflict with pro-Russian separatists, dares to hope that the Sheriff’s adventure can nurture a certain fraternity between Moldovan enemies.
In any case, the Moldovan Football Federation let out its joy after the qualification of Tiraspol for the group stage: “Sheriff is EUROFANTASTIC!”