The controversies behind the Champions League underdog, Sheriff Tiraspol — explained

The controversies behind the Champions League underdog, Sheriff Tiraspol — explained
Image: Sheriff Tiraspol

29 September 2021

This year, a Moldovan football team qualified for the Champions League for the first time. They managed to beat Shakhtar Donetsk, but it was their win against Real Madrid that stunned audiences and made football history. While the victory is a cause for celebration, it has also divided Moldovans. Corruption accusations aren’t a rarity in today’s professional football, but in the case of Sheriff Tiraspol this is only complicated by territorial disputes and an ongoing conflict.

Some argue that football is one of the few ways in which Transnistria is integrated into Moldova — teams on both banks of the river Nistru, which divides Transnistria from the rest of Moldova, regularly play against each other on both sides. In Transnistria, Sheriff Tiraspol games are the only time that the Moldovan national anthem booms out from speakers.

Others maintain that Sheriff Tiraspol’s win is a slap in the face for Moldovans, due to the close relations between the Transnistrian regime, which poses a security threat to Moldova, and the Sheriff corporation. On the security front, Russia still has its army and ammunition in Transnistria, despite signing an international agreement in 1999 to withdraw it. Moreover, Transnistria gets its gas for “free” from Russia, yet the Kremlin considers this as Chișinău’s debt. Meanwhile, Moldova does not control the Transnistrian border, which makes the place a hotspot for international smuggling, including arms.

Who are they? Founded in 1998, Sheriff Tiraspol is a football team from Transnistria, an unrecognised breakaway republic of Moldova that is predominantly controlled by Russia. Under the rules of FIFA and UEFA, however, the team has to represent Moldova in international games — these are the only occasions when the Moldovan rather than the Transnistrian flag (still emblazoned with a hammer and sickle) is waved in Tiraspol.

Follow the money: The team is owned by the Sheriff corporation, which funds Transnistria’s ruling party, Renewal. At this moment in time, the Sheriff corporation has a monopoly over most economic activity in Transnistria: owning, among others, the region’s only chain of petrol stations, the telephone company, a publishing house, shopping malls, and a distillery. Sheriff Tiraspol’s budget, as a result, is estimated at £3.5 million a year, about 6-12 times that of other Moldovan football teams. This financial power, enabling the club to buy highly performing players, is what has led to Sheriff’s sheer domination over Moldovan football, winning an astonishing 19 titles in the National Divisions in 23 years.

How did they manage to qualify for the Champions League? In 2020, the Moldovan Football Federation scrapped a requirement for each team to have a minimum number of local players. This was done primarily to so that local footballers could compete with better, international players. But this has meant that all Sheriff Tiraspol’s main players — the first 11 — are international. This qualification can be seen as a direct consequence of liberalising football rules in Moldova.

Why is their performance a divisive issue in Moldova? Moldovans are divided on whether Sheriff Tiraspol’s victory is a win for the country, or a win for corrupt money and the breakaway regime in Transnistria.

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