Real Madrid and Inter Milan are two of the most decorated clubs in the history of European soccer, titans sitting aside a mountain of domestic and continental silverware. Yet neither club leads their Champions League group after two rounds of play. That honor is held by the pride of Transnistria, a club less than a quarter-century old, FC Sheriff. They announced their presence on Europe’s biggest stage with a surprise win over Ukraine’s best team on the first matchday, then outdid themselves with a 2–1 stunner against Real Madrid on Tuesday. You may have questions, questions such as How?, The sheriff of what?, and What is Transnistria? If so, you have come to the right blog post.
FC Sheriff Tiraspol is the class of the Divizia Națională, the highest tier of Moldovan soccer. The club has won the domestic league 19 times in 23 tries, though the only competitions it really cares about are continental. Because the Wasps always win their league, they always make it to the outer rounds of Champions League, though Sheriff never broke out of the Europa League group stage or into the Champions League group stage until this year, when they shut out Dinamo Zagreb in a playoff to become the first-ever Moldovan club to play in this phase of the competition.
The team’s composition reflects its ambitions: Only five of its first-team players are Moldovan, while the majority come from Africa, South America, or outer Europe. They don’t have to look far to find the precedent for this sort of team setup. Group G opponents Shakhtar Donetsk have made their way in Europe for decades by hoovering up as many Brazilian prospects as they can, ideally flipping them for a big fee after a nice Champions League run or two. Sheriff is running the same playbook on a smaller scale, since none of their guys are ever going to get called up to, say, the Brazilian national team. Their four 2021 Champions League goalscorers tell a neat story of what sort of club we’re dealing with here. In their 2–0 win against Shakhtar, one goal came from a Guinean forward with scant U-20 experience, and the other from an Adama Traoré, though not the Adama Traoré. Against Real Madrid, players representing Uzbekistan and Luxembourg were the scoring heroes. Sébastien Thill’s winner against Real was particularly spicy, a first-timer in the 89th minute struck pure and perfect.
At first pass, this seems straightforwardly good. Who doesn’t appreciate a good underdog story, especially when clown-ass, Super League–leading Real Madrid serves as the punchline? This is where the answer to the second question posed above complicates things. Sheriff is, as their name suggests, a fairly malevolent entity. Sheriff the team is named after Sheriff the company, which is a business conglomerate of sorts that more or less formally runs the economy of Transnistria. Transnistria is a long, skinny breakaway state sandwiched between the eastern bank of the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, and the only states that recognize its independence are other post-Soviet breakaway states like South Ossetia. Sheriff controls the enclave’s internet services, broadcasting capabilities, gas stations, grocery stores, and even bread production. They have a fairly complete economic monopoly, and FC Sheriff’s $200 million stadium was recently described by a Moldovan ex-pat as “the only modern building in the country.”
Because of Transnistria’s contested legal status, Sheriff’s operations are inextricable from the state. They are only allowed to run what is essentially a smuggler’s monopoly because Transnistria, formally known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, shares a rather porous border with Ukraine that allows for all sorts of illegal trade, like guns, drugs, and money laundering. FC Sheriff and Sheriff LLC are owned by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, two former KGB officers who fought and won a struggle to control privatization of the enclave after the fall of the Soviet Union. Transnistria is somewhat distinct from Moldova along ethnic and linguistic lines, and the region still conceives of itself as the last holdout of the Soviet Union. If that sounds like an exaggeration, well, here’s the flag:
Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1992 following a brief civil war it won with Russian support, support that still enforces its moderate degree of independence. In exchange for free gas and military support, Russia gets a point of influence into the European Union, complete with a theoretically permeable border. However, as Moldova proper moves closer to the EU, Transnistrian trade has started to flow away from Russia. Even if the region remains contested, Sheriff still controls its economic fate and it relies on Russian state enforcement of Transnistria’s legal limbo. While the enclave’s government and half-million people appear to want to be reabsorbed into Russia (Russian citizens reportedly make up half the population, which makes sense given that it started as a KGB project), Transnistria doesn’t even border its benefactor and Moldova’s new government is looking towards the EU.
To bring things back to where we started, FC Sheriff’s role in all of this is to legitimize Gushan, Kazmaly, and the Transnistrian project on the European and global stages. So yes, anyone beating Real Madrid in any circumstance is worth celebrating, especially when it features the first Luxembourger to score in the Champions League. But because FC Sheriff is only a plucky underdog in strictly soccer terms, one can’t get too fully aboard the bandwagon given how shady their whole deal is.