Edmund Edo sank into child’s pose in the middle of the field, his forehead touching the turf, his arms outstretched in front of him, a gesture of prayer and thanksgiving. At about 60 yards, excitement overwhelmed his teammate Giorgos Athanasiadis, his legs twitching as two colleagues tried to help him stand. His coach, Yuri Vernydub, danced to the touchline.
They all arrived in Sheriff Tiraspol relatively recently: Ghanaian midfielder Edo and Greek goalkeeper Athanasiadis had joined this summer; Vernidb only predicted them by one year. Still, he knew what it meant for his team, which had been waiting for this moment for two decades.
And they knew what it meant to them. He had put his life forward to move to a country that technically did not exist, to play for a team based in a disputed territory, to join a club that was a state within a state. Represents, a grayscale place unmatched by the rest of the world. Now, after seeing Croatian champion Dinamo Zagreb, he had his reward: Edo, Athanasiadis and the rest of the sheriff would be in Champions League.
The next day, they will learn the identities of their opponents: Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and, best of all, Real Madrid will be coming to Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, to compete in the most respected, richest, most-club football. I saw the competition.
at first sight, sheriff’s story There may be an air of a fairy tale, but the details are – aptly – rendered in shades of earthy. As far as UEFA, the governing body of European football is concerned, Tiraspol, the city where the team is located, may be in Moldova. The sheriff may be the current, and essentially perennial, Moldovan champion.
But Tiraspol does not consider itself part of Moldova. Instead, it is the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, to give its proper name – a separate republic on the left bank of the Dniester River, a 25-mile-wide piece of land with its own currency (the Transnistrian ruble), its own flag. (red and green, with hammer and sickle) and own government (Supreme Soviet).
The sheriff does not easily fit the role of a Dalit. It has won all but two Moldovan titles in this century. It plays in a league in a state-of-the-art stadium complex built at a cost of $200 million, where many of its opponents play on ramshackle grounds surrounded by wasteland, in front of only a few dozen fans.
Its team is filled with many imports from Africa and South America and Eastern Europe, while its rivals can field only locals. “It rarely buys players for big money,” said Leonid Istrati, a key agent in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. “But only the sheriff can afford players of a good standard. Before that, few other teams could. Now, they can’t.”
The source of the team’s financial power is in its name. The Sheriff is the centerpiece of the private economy in Transnistria, a group founded by two former KGB agents in the chaotic days of 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Transnistria’s War of Independence from Moldova.
Its roots, reportedly, lie in the region historical smuggling. Transnistria’s marginal status, its porous borders and its opaque history – it is home to one of Europe’s greatest arms – have long made it a haven for all manner of illegal activity, from gun-toting Drug-trafficking and cigarette counterfeiting are also included.
In 2006, the European Union’s Border Monitoring Force estimated that if the region’s import figures were accurate, every single person in Transnistria was eating more than 200 pounds of frozen chicken feet each year. Even Sheriff’s founder, Victor Gushan, has admitted that his company has had to work.between things.“
Now, however, the sheriff – groups and clubs – is everywhere. It runs a chain of supermarkets. It runs a gas station. It has a winery and a television channel and a phone network. “It is important to remember that the Transnistrian region as a whole works for Sheriff Tiraspol,” said Ion Jalba, a journalist and commentator in Moldova. “In Tiraspol, everything is controlled by this company. There are sheriff’s shops and sheriff’s fuel stations. The football club is like a child fed by the entire separatist sector. “
This is what allows the sheriff to pay his players $15,000 a month to play against home opponents, earning only a few hundred dollars if they are paid on time. Zimbru Chiसीinu, historically the largest team in Moldova, survives only on the rent paid by the national team for the use of its stadium.
In turn, this has given the sheriff considerable power. Despite political differences between Moldova and Transnistria, the relationship between the sheriff and the country’s football federation, the FMF, is considered to be remarkably close. “The football here is under the full control of the sheriff,” said Christian Jordan, a football journalist in Moldova.
Officials have not only postponed games this season to give the sheriff time to prepare for the Champions League qualifiers, they have also amended their rules on the number of overseas players to allow the club to strengthen its squad. has done. , a former Moldovan international and former vice president of the country’s football federation. “No other team can compete in Moldova,” he said.
So many people don’t even try. Over the past year, Moldovan anti-corruption investigators have argued that the country’s soccer league has played more than 20 matches. has been fixed, players were paid a few hundred dollars by gambling associations to guarantee the results. A whistleblower told the newspaper Ziarul da Garda that players were instructed that their job was to “earn rather than win”.
Corruption is so rampant that, in 2015, Testemitanu was even approached by fixers representing a syndicate in Singapore. At that time, he was not only the vice president of the national federation – FMF – but also the assistant manager of the Moldovan national team.
“They took me to a nice restaurant, they said they wanted the information, and then after half an hour they told me what they were proposing,” he said. “They wanted to fix the national team game: youth team, women’s team, everything. I didn’t say anything, I just had to think about it. Then, I called the police straight away, and told them what had happened. “
Testemitanu agreed to wear a recording device, and to be followed by a surveillance team, to help detectives gather evidence. His wife instructed 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.
That didn’t stop the problem; In the last year alone, Moldovan officials argue that fixers have earned up to $700,000 by bribing players to throw games. This is evidence, Testemitanu said, of endemic corruption in Moldovan football, one that has been documented by journalists and investigators as high as the FMF itself; For example, an investigation by Ziarul da Garda found that several high-ranking officials had amassed vast estate portfolios while working for the organization.
“FMF does not invest in Moldovan football,” said Testemitanu. “It invests in itself: it builds training camps and futsal halls, but it doesn’t spread money from FIFA and UEFA to teams that need it.”
There should be a chance to address the Sheriff’s presence in the Champions League group stage. The club would receive approximately $20 million to make it through to the qualifiers; The FMF will also benefit from a handout from UEFA, an award for being a representative at this stage of the competition.
However, there is little hope that the money will affect Moldovan soccer. The country’s academies are short of funds, facilities are poor. Everywhere except the sheriff, ie. “It has an incredible academy,” Jordan said. “But it doesn’t promote anyone. There is hardly any Moldovan player in the team who will play in the Champions League. This is not a Moldovan team. It’s not even really a Transnistrian one.”
To all this, there is genuine excitement over the prospect of even the disputed Moldovan soil of Champions League football. Testemitanu regards it as a “dream come true”. He has tickets to the Sheriff’s opening game against Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, and is also hoping to get tickets to visits to Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
He is willing to go through the humiliation of traveling to Tiraspol – being forced to show his passport at a border that his nation, and the international community, does not recognize, to be registered by the authorities who are still Soviet. The symbolism of the era fetishizes – for the opportunity to see those teams is the same: seeing a team from the Moldovan league on this stage, he said, “is a source of pride, and a sense of awe.”
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 a difference it might make. “The money from the Champions League would count for the sheriff, but even without it, it 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 an entire country. It’s about prestige in the Champions League, about being in that top league. “
Now that the Sheriff is there, though, now that he’s finally made it, it just so happens that the gap has deepened. The last wish for the last shade of gray disappears, and everything becomes black and white.
This is what the Sheriff is waiting for; This is what the rest of Moldovan football must be dreading. It crystallizes the sheriff’s imperative to win the league over and over again, forever. Viewing from Moldova, this is not a fairy tale about a lucky hero, but quite the contrary. This is Vishal’s final victory. “For Moldovan football,” said Jordan, “this is the end.”