Separatist champions join European football's heavyweights

Sports | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 15 Sep 2021

Fans of European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan will soon see their teams face unusual competition: a club from a tiny separatist region in Moldova.

After failed attempts, Sheriff are making their debut in the group stage of the Champions League.

But their success is highlighting divisions in the wake of a brief civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of Transnistria. The breakaway entity has its own currency, police and army but is not recognized internationally, so Sheriff continue playing in the Moldovan league.

The Moldovan football federation reveled in the qualification, but sports journalist Cristian Jardan said: "I don't see much reason to be happy. The team represent a separatist enclave where corruption, smuggling and shadow economy deals are rife."

And the Champions League spot, he said, will benefit only the owners of Sheriff.

Founded in 1997, the club based in the breakaway region's hub, Tiraspol, are usually in the limelight after winning six straight Moldovan league titles and 19 of the last 21.

At a training session last weekend at Sheriff Stadium, coach Yuriy Vernydub was still processing Champions League qualification. "I didn't expect it," the 55-year-old Ukrainian said, adding that Champions League games "will probably unite" fans in Moldova and Transnistria.

Since 2009, the side has played four times in Europe's No 2 competition, the Europa League, and twice been eliminated in the Champions League qualifying rounds. This year though saw them earn a Champions League slot.

In training, the team members - Brazilian, Greek, Colombian, Peruvian, Guinean, Ghanaian and Luxembourger but no Moldovans - are looking past their first Champions League game with Shakhtar Donetsk tomorrow (HK time) as they visit Real Madrid later this month.

The club are owned by the Sheriff conglomerate, an economic and political monopoly in Transnistria.

Founded by two Soviet police officers, Sheriff's logo is everywhere in Tiraspol, a city of about 130,000 people.

One co-founder, Viktor Gushan, is club president. He has built a complex including a 13,000-seat stadium and a smaller arena.

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September 2021

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