One of the greatest underdogs of all time is starting the Champions League adventure: Sheriff Tiraspol is qualified for the group stage of the premier class for the first time. The association is financed by a large corporation that also controls politics in the separatist region of Transnistria.
Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and Real Madrid have to travel to Tiraspol this Champions League season. In preliminary round group D there are not only three regulars of the premier class, but also the champions of the Republic of Moldova with the FC Sheriff. From the small country between Ukraine and Romania, a football club has never made it this far. And more precisely, Sheriff Tiraspol is only formally from the Republic of Moldova.
The club has its home in one De facto state that covers about ten percent of the area of Moldova. A strip 200 kilometers long and only 2 to 20 kilometers wide, from the northeast to the southeast of the Republic of Moldova, east of the Dniester River – welcome to Transnistria.
“A de facto state, like a de jure state, has a territory and a population that is controlled and governed by a government. The difference is that de facto states are not recognized internationally,” explains Sabine von Löwis, who heads the research focus on Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions at the Center for Eastern European and International Studies, in the ntv podcast “Another thing learned”.
The geographer explains that the reason for the lack of recognition of states is often the nature of the split. “That often does not meet the expectations of the international community of states. Or they did not separate by mutual agreement.”
The pseudo-state on the territory of the Republic of Moldova emerged a good 30 years ago when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Moldova declared itself independent in August 1991, freed itself from control from Moscow and instead turned to Romania. Romanian was declared the official and only official language. But the people in Transnistria didn’t want to go along with this – they split off from the Republic of Moldova.
The separation from the “political and economic elite, with the support of the workers”, describes the expert von Löwis. “This made it possible to organize this protest movement very well and to counter the Romanization tendencies in Moldova somewhat.”
The protests culminated in a military conflict in 1992. The Republic of Moldova tried to bind the region to itself by force. “That didn’t succeed because the Russian army also intervened there,” reports Sabine von Löwis. Finally, a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1992, which is still valid today.
The Transnistrian population lives in difficult conditions, most of the people are poor. The average income is around 200 euros a month. That is around 100 euros less than the average people in Moldova earn. This is another reason why many people are leaving the country. The population has fallen sharply since the end of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s there were around 700,000 people living in Transnistria, today there are officially only 460,000.
Free gas from Russia
Transnistria has been virtually independent from Moldova for almost 30 years; it also has its own government and parliament. In terms of international law, however, the country is still part of Moldova because no state recognizes Transnistria as independent.
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Not even Russia, although it supplied Transnistria with gas for free and also stationed soldiers. “In this way, Russia creates permanent instability in the region. Sooner or later, Moldova will not be able to integrate into the EU, even if it wants to. Russia thus has influence on the edge of Europe,” explains expert von Löwis.
In addition to Russia, a large corporation has a major influence in Transnistria: Sheriff. By far the largest company in Transnistria controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. Sheriff operates all gas stations, has a mobile phone company, a liquor manufacturer, its own bank, a supermarket chain and a football club that is now playing in the Champions League.
Close relationships between politics and the group
Sheriff was founded in 1993 by Viktor Guschan and Ilja Kasmaly. The unusual name goes back to the original corporate concept. “They founded a kind of security company for members of police families and then gradually started to control various legal and illegal trading systems. Originally it was about cigarettes. Later they took over various other lucrative commercial businesses and then grew bigger and bigger,” reports Sabine von Löwis.
The group is said to have close ties in politics – above all to the long-standing President Igor Smirnow, who ruled Transnistria with a hard hand from 1991 to 2011 and who gave the sheriff group tax and customs advantages. In return, Sheriff supported the government’s policies – also financially. This is how mutual dependencies arose.
Several examples show how closely sheriff is with politics: Co-founder Kasmaly sat for some time as a member of the Transnistrian parliament, now Viktor Gushan’s son has a seat in the parliament.
Nothing works in Transnistria without a sheriff, this becomes immediately clear in view of these amalgamations. Especially since the group also has sport on a leash. Sheriff is the main sponsor, namesake and owner of the FC Sheriff Tiraspol club. Wiktor Guschan, one of the two company founders, is also the president of the football club.
The club also offers young football players free training, says Sabine von Löwis in the “Wieder was learned” podcast. “Young men from all over the country can get active there. I don’t know if you can call it sportswashing, when Sheriff tries to look good while it makes a lot of profits in Transnistria in a more or less legal way.”
From Transnistria for Moldova in the premier class
At the same time, the FC Sheriff forms the direct bridge over to the mother state, so to speak. Because the club plays in the football league of the Republic of Moldova, the Divizia Națională. Sheriff is permanent champion here, has won 19 of the last 21 championships. And so the club officially represents Moldovan football internationally.
“In contrast to the other post-Soviet de facto states, the contact between Transnistria and Moldova is still very strong, at least below the political level, where the only question is: recognition or non-recognition, or integration or independence,” so from Löwis.
Football as a connecting element – this will also be emphasized by UEFA if there are any unpleasant questions in the course of FC Sheriff Tiraspol’s first-time participation in the Champions League. Questions about the political and / or economic interlinking of the association and the group. But UEFA is known to have experience: Manchester City is controlled from the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Paris Saint-Germain belongs to the emirate of Qatar, the Champions League clubs from Salzburg and Leipzig to an Austrian energy drink manufacturer – and Sheriff Tiraspol to a monopoly from the de facto state of Transnistria. Welcome to the world of football in 2021.