NOTE: this article is not intended to be political in any way. That means, the author is not wanting to choose a side politically or to out a personal preference or opinion. Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to separate football, travel or music (the three main subjects of this blog) from politics. This article is an example thereof. Please note the article is just citing facts and is not trying to out a personal opinion on the political situation in Tiraspol.
Last week the first legs of the last qualifiers for the Champions League and Europa League were played. The returns are scheduled for the coming week. This play-off round is extremely important because this is the "make or break" round to reach the group stage. For those clubs in the qualifiers of the Champions League the situation in case of a loss is slightly less dramatic because they can continue their route in the Europa League (the former UEFA Cup). Of course, when you’re this close to the real Champions League, you also want to reach it.
One of the clubs that is making yet another attempt to get into the C.L. is Sheriff Tiraspol. The club has been winning the Moldovan championship from 2001 until now but despite that impressive list of domestic titles the club never reached the Champions League. Will the 10th attempt be the right one? Last year they reached the play-off round for the first time but fell to Olympiakos Piraeus of Greece. Now the opponent in that play-off round is FC Basel from Switzerland. A 1-0 loss last Wednesday can still be overcome in the return in Tiraspol, so the chances of finally getting into the real Champions League are still there.
Before we look at the history of FC Sheriff Tiraspol, we need to look at the place they are from. Unfortunately this is where politics can no longer be avoided. Tiraspol is the second biggest city of Moldova, one of the 15 states that was formed after the collapse of the USSR. It is however also the capital of the de facto independent nation of Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie as locals tend to say. Transnistria is a very narrow stroke of land near the border between Ukraine and Moldova. De facto, the Romanian-leaning citizens live on the right bank of the river Dniester and belong to the Republic of Moldova. The Russian-speaking and pro-Russian citizens live on the left bank of the river and consider themselves to not be affiliated to Moldova in any way. We can simplify the situation a bit by stating that the de facto state Transnistria is the narrow stroke of land between the left bank of the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border. Internationally this area is considered to be an autonomous region of Moldova called Stînga Nistrului ("Left Dnestr bank") ; in practice though the area is not controlled by the Moldovan government and forms a separate country which is however unrecognised by any UN member. Only 3 states recognise the independence of Transnistria, but those 3 states are not recognised by the UN themselves neither. De facto the territory functions as a sovereign state though, with Tiraspol as capital. Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is the official name of the state according to the locals.
To state that Transnistria is just the territory between the Ukrainian border and the river Dniester is however a bit too simplified. In reality the government in Tiraspol also controls the city Bender and a few neighbouring villages, these are situated on the right bank of the Dniester and thus not geographically in Transnistria, but they are under control of the government in Tiraspol.
A more detailed map showing only Transnistria and its villages can be found here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/Naddniestrze.png
The country declared independence in 1990 when the USSR collapsed. Around that time also Moldova was formed, the country that according to the UN contains Transnistria. The country in practice is fully independent: there is a seperate banking system and monetary unit than Moldova has (Transnistria has the Transnistrian Ruble), there is an own parliament named the "Supreme Soviet", the government issues its own passports, … The population of the breakaway country is approx. 537000 of which approx 160000 live in the capital Tiraspol. The population is ethnically diverse with ethnic Moldovans, ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians all more or less forming 1/3 of the population (despite the presence of ethnic Moldovans, they also seek no reunion with Moldova). The country has an area of 4163 square km. The flag is a red-green-red horizontally striped flag with the hammer and sickle in the upper left corner, it is a flag that was used by the Moldovan SSR before the collapse of the USSR.
Despite the country not being considered as a communist nation, communist symbols and semi-propaganda are still very frequent in the Transnistrian streets. The government building still has a statue of Lenin in front of its entrance:
Also, symbols of the old USSR are still very frequently seen in Transnistria. The hammer and sickle is used not only on the flag (even when the law allows flags not displaying the symbol to be used as well) but is also used in official emblems and more…
It is clear that the relation with Russia is still very important. Other than the communist propaganda that can be found, Russian troops are constantly present in Transnistria to keep the peace in the region. There is a demilitarised zone founded after the local war in 1992 where Russian, Moldovan and Transnistrian troops constantly patrol to guarantee safety. The very tight relationship with Russia (some even going as far as wanting to become part of Russia) makes a reunion with the UN recognised Moldova very difficult. Different political parties all campaign for independence of Transnistria with a very tight bond with Russia, and some people seek reunification with Russia. "Love for Russia" is dominant and there are mainly degrees of how much different parties love Russia ; none of them is actually reluctant to the connection with Russia. Attempts to reunite Transnistria with Moldova were made, including the famous Kozak Memorandum in 2003 which proposed an assymetric federal state of Moldova in which Transnistria would be one of the three units (they would not be equally represented in the federation but still have enough representatives to have veto right). The attempt to reunite failed…
We now take a leap to the football team. When hearing the name FC Sheriff, I can imagine some people think of the Wild West, of some Texan policeman in uniform. The reason behind the name is different though and this is why politican cannot really be separated from this club. Sheriff is a company in Transnistria which does a lot of things: they own the football club, they are building a 5 star hotel next to the stadium, there are Sheriff gas stations, Sheriff supermarkets, they are Transnistria’s only mobile phone provider, they have a Sheriff TV channel, Sheriff publicity company, they run a publishing firm, … In other words, Sheriff is very dominant in Transnistria and has some sort of semi-monopoly on everything in Transnistria. The company was from the start on very good terms with Igor Smirnov, who has been president of Transnistria since it declared independence. Sheriff as a company supported the government and in return they were exempted from certain types of taxes and import duties (ironically it was Smirnov’s son who was responsible for that). There are even strong rumours that the company was indirectly involved with local politics. In any ways it allowed Sheriff to build a sort of monopoly in Transnistria.
The problem was that the company wanted to grow but due to the country not being recognised by any UN recognised state, they found themselves in a very difficult situation to reach out to the foreign market. Several board members of the Sheriff company, including co-founder and HR manager Ilon Tyuryaeva, joined a new political party called Renewal, a party which campaigns sovereignity for Transnistria. Just like the regime of Smirnov they are against reunion with Moldova but Renewal is more orientated towards protecting the big corporations and enterprises. When Renewal was formed, the good relations between Sheriff and the regime faded because of Smirnov’s fear to lose his presidential power to Evgeny Shevchuk who was formerly in Sheriff and had strong ties to the company. Smirnov saw the new party as a threat and also feared Sheriff because the company openly supported the new party. Smirnov even accused them of preparing a coup to take power and accused Sheriff to secretly work together with the Moldovans in return for a legal status allowing them to trade internationally. He even feared they’d attempt a reunion with Moldova. So the ties between Sheriff and the government may have faded, they used to be very strong and all sorts of benefits helped Sheriff to get a semi-monopoly position in the unrecognised state.
Obviously, the company wanted a sports team of their own as well. That way, FC Sheriff was formed in 1997 in Tiraspol. Already before the new millennium began, they won the Moldovan Cup for the first time and would afterwards win this tournament another 5 times. FC Sheriff, backed by the powerful company, was the first club in the Moldovan league to sign foreign players from, amongst others, Brazil. The club won its first national championship title in 2001 and has since then won back-to-back titles. It is safe to say the club completely dominates the Moldovan league. It was also the first club from the Moldovan league to win an international trophy: in 2003 and 2009, the club won the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup.
The club plays its games in the Sheriff Stadium which opened in 2002 and has an approx. 14300 capacity. Foreign players live in flats built almost next to the stadium, and a 5 star hotel next to the stadium is under construction. It is the only stadium in Europe that is in rule with every single safety rule of UEFA. Despite being in a separatist region, the Moldovan national team has hosted several international games here. One of them was against Scotland. The Scots were deeply impressed by the excellent facilities of the Sheriff Stadium, one of the Scottish FA members even saying "I wish we had such a stadium in Scotland".
FC Sheriff, thanks to winning the Moldovan league every year since 2001, became a somewhat known name in Europe, but never got far enough to really become a familiar face. They very often were eliminated in the last qualifying round of the Champions League before the play-off stage. It took until 2009 before they reached that play-off round. This happened by eliminating Inter Turku from Finland, and then eliminating Czech champions Slavia Praha on away goals (a 0-0 in Tiraspol was followed by a 1-1 in Prague, with the remarkable detail that the decisive Sheriff equaliser was scored in the 94th minute). In that play-off round Olympiakos Piraeus was too strong (0-2 in Tiraspol, and another 1-0 loss in Greece) but the club assured European football until the winter break nonetheless as they were picked up in the Europa League group stages. Opponents there were FC Twente (NL), Fenerbahçe (TR) and Steaua Bucuresti (RO). The club did relatively well with two draws against Steaua (0-0 in Bucharest and 1-1 in Tiraspol), and one victory against FC Twente as a highlight (2-0 in the own Sheriff Stadium). The tally stuck to 5 points because in the Netherlands the club lost 2-1, and against Fenerbahçe both games were lost with a narrow 1-0. However, this European campaign was generally speaking a success for FC Sheriff.
This year the Champions League qualifiers saw Sheriff eliminate Dinamo Tirana (a 3-1 win in Tiraspol proved to be enough to progress, despite a 1-0 loss in Albania in the return leg) and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia (two times 1-1, but Sheriff won the tie on penalty kicks) in order to reach the play-off round against FC Basel. The first leg in Switzerland was lost 1-0, the return follows the coming week. Even if Sheriff would fail to beat the Swiss, they are again sure to play in Europe until the winter because if they lose the tie versus Basel they go into the group stage of the Europa League again. If however the Swiss would be defeated in Tiraspol, Sheriff would in their 10th attempt finally reach the Champions League. The decision will follow this week in the Sheriff Stadium.
And this is where all the action happens… The inside of the Sheriff Stadium: