Sheriff Tiraspol, the modest and unknown team that will play against Real Madrid and Inter Milan in the Champions League

This modest club will debut in the top European club competition as part of group G, which, in addition to Italians and Spaniards, is completed by Shakhtar Donetsk from Ukraine.

Sheriff represents the capital of the pro-Russian separatist state of about 470,000 inhabitants that, after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, separated from the rest of Moldova, one of the most unknown European countries.

Since then, Transnistria, protected by Russian soldiers, has been ‘de facto’ independent, although no other country in the world has recognized it.

In football terms and in order to be part of the Uefa system, Tiraspol, the capital of about 100,000 inhabitants, plays in the Moldovan championship, which the Sheriff has won in 19 of the last 21 editions.

The animosity between Transnistria and Moldova is great.

“People say that sport should not be mixed with politics,” says Yuriy Vernydub, the Sheriff’s Ukrainian coach, but the reality is that “sport is politics.”

Tiraspol fans are pleased that its micro-state of just 4,100 km2, somewhat larger than Luxembourg, is going to receive great stars of the ball such as the French Karim Benzema or the Argentine Lautaro Martínez.

A bird flies near the FC Sheriff logo at the stadium in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Free Press Photo: AFP.

“Many people are going to discover that this unrecognized country exists,” claims Igor Trochtchinski, 61, and a fan of the Sheriff since its founding in 1997.

On the other side of the Dniester River, which separates this territory from the rest of Moldova, the enthusiasm is much less.

“I see no reason to be happy,” says sports journalist Cristian Jardan.

“This team represents a separatist enclave that is financed through corruption, illegal trafficking and an opaque economy, which directly causes damage to the budget and the interests of the Republic of Moldova,” he argues.

The club is owned by Sheriff, a business conglomerate that includes supermarkets, gas stations, a mobile phone network, a sturgeon farm, and the local cognac distillery.

Founded by two veterans of the security forces, one of them the current president of the club, Victor Gushan, the mother house of Sheriff Tiraspol controls a good part of the economy of Transnistria and is a major player from a political point of view.

This business conglomerate has financed the club’s sports complex, worth $ 200 million, with two stadiums (for 13,000 and 9,000 spectators), a sports center and 16 training fields.

Sheriff Tiraspol, who had already participated in the Europa League, is a sports dwarf at the European level and his team is valued at 11.8 million euros, according to the specialized site Transfermarkt, nothing compared to the 783.5 million in which it is evaluated the Real Madrid squad.

In the starting eleven in their championship match last Sunday there were Brazilians, Colombians, Greeks and even a Luxembourgish … but no Moldovans.

FC Sheriff coach Yuriy Vernydub of Ukraine attends an interview with AFP at Sheriff Stadium in Tiraspol. Free Press Photo: AFP.

Whatever happens, for the coach the adventure in the Champions League is a “fairy tale” for his team, which will visit mythical stadiums such as the Bernabéu and San Siro.

“I say it honestly, I did not expect it,” admits Vernydub. “But I dreamed of it.”

For Igor Trochtchinski, a fan of the team, the least thing is the result, since what matters is to participate in the ‘Champions’. “We had been working on it for 20 years. In 10 years, maybe, we can get through the first phase. “

On a political level, the Ukrainian coach, whose country has suffered from confrontation with pro-Russian separatists for years, hopes that the Sheriff’s adventure can give way to a certain brotherhood with his Moldovan enemies.

“It’s probably going to unite Moldova and Transnistria,” he wants to believe.

At the very least, the Moldovan Football Federation showed their joy after confirming the club’s qualification for the group stage of the Champions League: “Sheriff is EURO FANTASTIC!” He wrote on social media.

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