Champions League debutants from contested territory innovate

Edmund Addo sank into a child’s pose in the middle of the pitch, his forehead touching the grass, his arms outstretched in front of him, a gesture of plea and thanks. At around 60 meters, euphoria had overwhelmed his teammate Giorgos Athanasiadis, his legs twisting as two colleagues tried to help him up. Their coach, Yuriy Vernydub, danced on the sideline.

They were all relatively recent arrivals from Sheriff Tiraspol: Addo, a Ghanaian midfielder, and Greek goalkeeper Athanasiadis had joined this summer; Vernydub only preceded them by a year. Still, they knew what it meant for their team, who had been waiting for this moment for two decades.

And they knew what it meant to them. They had turned their lives upside down to move to a country that doesn’t technically exist, to play for a team based in contested territory, to join a club that represents a state within a state, a grayscale place detached from the rest. of the world. Now, after knocking out Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb, they had their reward: Addo, Athanasiadis and the rest of Sheriff would be in the Champions League.

The next day, they would learn the identity of their opponents: Shakhtar Donetsk (whom they would beat 2-0 on Wednesday night), Inter Milan and especially Real Madrid would all come to Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, to compete in the most revered, rich and watched competition in club football.

In a way, anyway. At first glance, the sheriff’s story may sound like a fairy tale, but the details – rightly so – are rendered in shades of gray. Tiraspol, the city where the team is based, could be in Moldova for UEFA. The sheriff is perhaps the current and essentially eternal Moldovan champion.

Separatist republic

But Tiraspol does not see itself as part of Moldova. Rather, it is the so-called capital of Transnistria – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, to give its proper name – a breakaway republic on the left bank of the Dniester River, a 40 km wide strip of land with its own currency (the ruble), its own flag (red and green, with hammer and sickle) and its own government (the Supreme Soviet).

The sheriff does not easily fit into the role of outsider. He has won all but two Moldovan titles this century. He plays in an ultramodern stadium complex built at a cost of 170 million euros in a league where many of his opponents play on dilapidated grounds, surrounded by wasteland, in front of only a few dozen supporters.

His squad is packed with imports from Africa, South America and much of Eastern Europe, while rivals can only afford to field locals. “He rarely buys players for a lot of money,” said Leonid Istrati, a leading agent in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. “But only Sheriff can afford good level players. Before, a few other teams could. Now they can’t.

The source of the team’s financial strength is in its name. Sheriff is the centerpiece of the private economy in Transnistria, a conglomerate founded by two former KGB agents in the chaotic days of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Transdniestrian war for independence against vis-à-vis Moldova.

Its roots, it seems, lie in the region’s historic smuggling. The liminal status of Transnistria, its porous borders and its opaque history – it is home to one of the largest arms depots in Europe – have long made it a refuge for all kinds of illicit activities, from arms trafficking drug trafficking and counterfeit cigarettes.

In 2006, the European Union’s border surveillance force estimated that while the territory’s import statistics were correct, each person in Transdniestria ate more than 90 kg of frozen chicken thighs each year. Even the founder of the sheriff, Viktor Gushan, admitted that his company had to operate “between things”.

Now, however, Sheriff – the conglomerate and the club – is everywhere. He runs a supermarket chain. He manages gas stations. It has a cellar and a television channel and a telephone network. “It is important to remember that the Transnistrian region works entirely for Sheriff Tiraspol,” said Ion Jalba, journalist and commentator in Moldova. “In Tiraspol, everything is controlled by this company. There are Sheriff stores and Sheriff gas stations. The football club is like a child fed by the whole separatist zone. “

Sheriff’s defender Gustavo Dulanto directs the ball in his side’s victory over FC Shakhtar Donetsk. Photograph: Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images

This is what allows Sheriff to pay his players up to € 12,750 per month to play against domestic opponents earning only a few hundred euros, if they are paid on time. Zimbru Chisinau, historically Moldova’s greatest team, survives only on the rent paid by the national team for the use of their stadium.

This, in turn, gave the sheriff considerable power. Despite the political differences between Moldova and Transnistria, the relationship between the sheriff and the country’s football federation, FMF, is considered remarkably close. “Football here is under the full control of the sheriff,” said Cristian Jardan, a football journalist in Moldova.

Authorities have not only postponed games this season to give the sheriff time to prepare for his Champions League games, they have also changed their rules on how many foreign players a team can field to allow the club to strengthen. his squad, Ion Testemitanu, a former Moldovan international and former vice-president of the country’s football federation, said. “No other team in Moldova can compete,” he said.

Gaming unions

Many, then, don’t even try. Over the past year, Moldovan anti-corruption investigators claim that up to 20 matches in the country’s football leagues have been rigged, with players paid a few hundred dollars by gaming unions to secure the results. A whistleblower told Ziarul da Garda newspaper that the players had been told their job was to “win rather than win”.

Corruption is so prevalent that in 2015 even Testemitanu was approached by riggers representing a trade union in Singapore. At the time, he was not only vice-president of the national federation – the FMF – but also deputy director of the Moldovan national team.

“They took me to a good restaurant, they said they wanted information, then after half an hour they told me what they were offering,” he said. “They wanted to arrange the matches for the national teams: the youth teams, the women’s teams, everything. I didn’t say anything, just that I had to think about it. Then, right away, I called the police and told them what had happened.

Testemitanu agreed to wear a recording device and be followed by a surveillance team, to help detectives gather evidence. His wife ordered him not to sleep at home, so as not to endanger his family. “I was scared, of course,” he said. “I knew it was a risk. But I want normal football in Moldova. Two weeks later, Testemitanu said, the conspirators were arrested.

This did not stop the problem; Last year alone, Moldovan authorities claim that the riggers have earned up to € 595,000 bribing players to start matches. This is proof, said Testemitanu, of the endemic corruption in Moldovan football, a corruption that journalists and investigators have documented even to the FMF itself; an investigation by Ziarul da Garda, for example, found that several high-ranking executives had amassed huge real estate portfolios while working for the organization.

“The FMF does not invest in Moldovan football,” Testemitanu said. “He is investing in himself: he is building training camps and futsal halls, but he is not distributing FIFA and UEFA money to the teams who need it.” Sheriff’s presence in the Champions League group stage should provide an opportunity to address this. The club themselves will receive around 17 million euros just for making it through the playoffs; the FMF will also benefit from a UEFA handout, a reward for having a representative at this stage of the competition.

However, there is little hope that the money will have an impact on Moldovan football. The country’s academies are underfunded, its facilities poor. Everywhere except for the sheriff, that is. “He has an amazing academy,” Jardan said. “But that doesn’t promote anyone. There are hardly any Moldovan players in the squad that will play the Champions League. It is not a Moldovan team. It’s not even really Transnistria.

However, there was genuine excitement that Champions League football even occupied contested Moldovan soil. Testemitanu considers it a “dream come true”. He had tickets to the sheriff’s opener, the 2-0 win over Ukrainian Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, and he also hopes to secure tickets for visits to Inter Milan and Real Madrid.

“Source of pride”

He is ready to endure the indignity of traveling to Tiraspol – of being forced to show his passport at a border that his country and the international community do not recognize, of being registered by authorities who still fetishize the iconography of the Soviet era – for the chance to see these teams. Jalba is the same: to see a Moldovan league team on this stage, he said, is “a source of pride, and a feeling of astonishment”.

They know it will come at a cost, but there’s also a fatalism: it’s been like this for so long that it’s easy to wonder what difference it could make. “The Champions League money will count for the sheriff, but even without it he would have been the richest team in Moldova anyway,” Jalba said.

“The people who run the club don’t care about the money,” Testemitanu said. “They already have money. They don’t need $ 20 million. They control a whole country. It’s a question of reputation, of being in this superior league, in the Champions League. “

Now that the sheriff is here, now that they finally have it, all that happens is the difference is set in. The last strands of the last shade of gray disappear and everything turns black and white. This is what the sheriff expected; that’s what the rest of Moldovan football might have feared. It crystallizes the inevitability of the sheriff’s victory in the league, over and over again, in perpetuity. Looking from Moldova, it’s not a fairy tale about a brave hero, but quite the opposite. This is the giant’s final victory. “For Moldovan football,” said Jardan, “this is the end”.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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