The club emerge from nowhere



The herald

TIRASPOL. – The tiny de facto republic of Trans-Dniester – sometimes called Transnistria – is a place frozen in time.

In its capital Tiraspol, the former USSR hammer and sickle motif is proudly displayed on billboards and government buildings.

A huge statue of Lenin gazes out from a plinth outside the parliament, a sign of the city’s pride and nostalgia for its Soviet past.

But, Wednesday night, he took a giant step towards his future.

City football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol first qualified for the Champions League group stage with a play-off victory over Dinamo Zagreb in August.

Their reward was a draw which will allow them to welcome Real Madrid and Inter Milan to Tiraspol.

They beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 in their first group game on Wednesday.

If this marks new ground for Sheriff, European elite football will also step into the unknown.

This is the first time that the Champions League has been played in one of Europe’s de facto republics.

Under international law, the Trans-Dniester, a thin strip of land on the border with Ukraine, belongs to the Republic of Moldova, a country formed in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

In 1992, after a war in which nearly a thousand people were killed, the land east of the Dniester River in Moldova seceded to form a new self-proclaimed state, which remains largely unrecognized by the international community. .

The Trans-Dniester takes its “independence” from Moldova seriously.

It uses its own currency, the Transdniestrian Ruble, which cannot be obtained or exchanged anywhere else in the world, and which is outside the international banking system.

In Tiraspol, telephone signals from Moldova are not recorded, although the “border” is only 20 km away.

Champions League debutants have been playing in Moldova soccer league since 1999.

While the rest of the Premier League play on sports grounds leased from municipal authorities, the Sheriff’s House is a purpose-built US $ 200million (£ 154million) arena on the outskirts of Tiraspol.

They have won 20 of the 22 league titles they have contested.

The sheriff has rarely relied much on local talent, but a recent relaxation of the Moldovan Football Federation’s regulations regarding local quotas has allowed the club to fill its squad with foreign signings.

Their Champions League squad includes players from Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Brazil, Luxembourg and Peru.

Outside the capital, football is doing what it can to quell the horrors of the past.

In the town of Bendery, just a few kilometers inside the Moldovan border but under Transdnistrian control, a military roadblock manned by khaki-clad soldiers signals cars to crawl as they enter and exit the town .

Located on the banks of the Dniester, it is a city of crossfire.

Alexandru Guzun was due to play for Bendery club FC Tighina against FC Constuctorul on the day a latent conflict erupted in war.

The date was March 2, 1992.

“Can you imagine the shock of arriving in a city you know well and seeing bombs explode in the streets? he says.

Guzun was due to meet his teammates at a hotel before heading to the club’s Dynamo Stadium together.

This is not how it happened.

“The hotel was right by the river. Because of its location, with Tiraspol only a few kilometers away on one side and Moldovan soldiers coming from the other, we were physically in the middle of the fighting.

Once inside the hotel, it quickly became apparent that there was no way out. With bombs and shells exploding around them, Guzun and his teammates took the only route open to them – down.

The power of FC Sheriff is so ingrained that it is unlikely that it will be surpassed anytime soon by its impoverished rivals in the Moldovan league.

Last season’s Divizia Nationala title ended with 32 wins in 36 games and just one loss, as the team won at home with a 16-point margin.

The hope now is that the Champions League, and the visits from Real and Inter, will inject much-needed excitement into the predictable spectacle of the sheriff’s annual processions. – BBC Sport


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