The controversial fairy tale of FC Sheriff Tiraspol, slayers of Real Madrid in the UCL

In their first-ever Champions League campaign, Transnistrian side FC Sheriff Tiraspol have managed to defeat the likes of Real Madrid but whether their story should be celebrated is dependent on who you ask.

This year’s edition of the Champions League has yet to conclude the group stage but has already sparked some of the most unlikely and enthralling storylines in recent European football history.

From the seemingly likely early knockouts of Borussia Dortmund and Spanish giants FC Barcelona to the 1 point margin separating Porto, AC Milan, and Atletico Madrid in Group B, the 2021/22 edition of the Champions League is providing fans with the much-needed drama and uncertainty that has been absent in recent UCL campaigns.

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Then comes the unforeseeable run of FC Sheriff Tiraspol. A team who many thought would finish last in a group with Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Shakhtar Donetsk and not even win a single game, however, they proved us all wrong. The most fascinating part of Sheriff’s fairytale is not even related to football.

According to UEFA, Sheriff Tiraspol are the first Moldovan club to play in the Champions League but most inhabitants inside the city of Tiraspol would argue that statement to be false. Tiraspol is a city that resides in a 400-kilometre narrow strip of land that sits between Ukraine and Moldova, known as the self-proclaimed but internationally unrecognised state of Transnistria.

The state declared their independence from the Republic of Moldova back in 1990 following the collapse of the Soviet Union but a short-lived but violent war amongst Transnistria and Russia against Moldova in 1992 isolated the small state from the rest of the world.

It is believed that around 60% of the state’s economy is controlled by a company known as Sheriff Ltd. The company was founded in 1993 by Viktor Gusan and Ilya Kazmaly, two Soviet police officers who held a political and economic monopoly on Transnistria. The company owns and operates various supermarkets, gas stations, construction companies, hotels, and plenty of other portions of Transnistria’s economy.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Sabine von Lowis of the Center for East European and International Studies explained Sheriff Tiraspol’s role in helping grow the Sheriff Ltd. empire:

The Sheriff Tiraspol soccer team is just a part of an empire that effectively controls the breakaway region economically. It is also true in politics as well. Every member of parliament is connected with the party founded by Gusan.

FC Sheriff Tiraspol were founded in 1997 and it only took the club four years to take control over Moldovan football. The club became the wealthiest side in Moldova overnight and it took them a single season to be promoted to the Divizia Nationale, Moldova’s top flight of football, and just another two years to win their first title.

Sheriff have won 20 domestic titles in their history and currently play in a state-of-the-art stadium complex built at a cost of $200 million. One could only presume that Sheriff Ltd. invested a significant amount of their own funds into the stadium when you consider that only out of the other seven teams in Moldova’s first division own their own stadium and training facilities. Sheriff focuses on importing players from Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe whereas the seven other teams in Moldova’s top flight are limited to fielding local footballers.

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Football clubs from the Transnistrian region are full members of the Moldovan Football Federation which gives the Tiraspol-based side the opportunity to qualify for UEFA’s European club competitions. Because of their unstoppable domestic dominance, Sheriff has had no competition for Moldova’s spot in the Champions League qualifying rounds over the last two decades.

Since 2009, the club has previously played in the Europa League on four occasions and has been eliminated in the Champions League qualifying rounds twice. However, 2021 was the year that Sheriff finally reached their dream of playing in Europe’s premier competition after year upon year of failure.

Sheriff’s presence in the Champions League will earn the club around €14 million, however, this prize money will likely be claimed as profit for the club’s owners instead of being invested in Moldovan football. This sum may not mean much to most of the other teams in the Champions League, but to put this figure into perspective, Transfermarkt estimates Sheriff’s squad value to be €12 million. To compare, Shakhtar Donetsk’s squad is worth €180 million, Inter Milan’s equals €575 million, and 13-time UCL winners Real Madrid totals €780 million.

With one matchday left, Sheriff Tiraspol are currently 3rd in Group D with two wins and three losses and will qualify for the Europa League knockout stages for the first time in the club’s history regardless of Matchday 6’s results. The club won their two opening matches 2-0 and 2-1 against Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid but would go on to lose their next three.  

Cristian Jardan, a soccer journalist in Moldova, said:

Soccer here is in complete control of Sheriff. For Moldovan football, this is the end.

Their improbable rise to playing, and even winning, against Europe’s most elite clubs only solidifies Sheriff’s inevitability of winning the Divizia Nationale year after year and only increases the divide between them and other Moldovan clubs.

For Sheriff Ltd, The club’s continued success is a cause for celebration but for the rest of Moldova, it is a symbol of the company’s control over the entirety of Moldovan football. 

The Author

Dima Gambino

Aspiring football writer. You can find me on Twitter at @GambinoDima.

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