Football: New sheriff in town at the Bernabeu, but who are the Moldovan minnows?
MADRID: When Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol qualified for the Champions League elite, becoming the first team in this country to do so, pundits wondered “who?” “.
Then when they were drawn in a squad with Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk, pundits thought it was a matter of how many goals they would lose.
However, against all odds, Sheriff sits atop Group D with a maximum of six points, having perhaps managed the biggest upheaval in Champions League history when he knocked out Real 2-1 at the Bernabeu. Tuesday.
But who’s the new sheriff in town?
AN UN RECOGNIZED STATE
Sheriff Tiraspol is based in Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe, a country of 3.5 million people and one of the poorest in Europe. They play in the Moldovan league, but the city sees itself as the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway state nestled between the eastern bank of the Dniester River and Ukraine.
Russian speakers in Transnistria theoretically seceded from Moldova in 1990, a year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fearing that the country would soon merge with Romania, whose language and culture it widely shares.
The breakaway region waged a brief war with Moldova in 1992 and declared itself an independent state, although it is not recognized by any country, including Russia.
It has its own flag, license plates, passports and currency, the Transdniestrian ruble. To some, the region may resemble a time capsule of Soviet rule – a hammer and sickle adorn its flag, and a large statue of Lenin stands in front of the parliament.
Russian troops are still based in the region despite calls from the Moldovan government for their withdrawal.
The region’s population is 450,000, although many have gone to work abroad in countries such as Russia, Israel and Turkey. About 200,000 people are citizens of Russia, 120,000 are citizens of Ukraine, 240,000 are citizens of Moldova, and there are also citizens of Bulgaria and Romania.
The team is owned and named after the Sheriff company. Company formed in the early 1990s by Victor Gussn and Ilia Kazmali, two former Soviet policemen, the company dominates the commercial landscape in Transnistria, from gas stations, a mobile phone network, banking services and the production of a brandy popular.
Sheriff has dominated the Moldovan Premier League, winning nine of the last 10 titles. They currently sit third in the league with 19 points in eight games, eight points behind league leader Milsami but three games down.
The Moldovan league relies mainly on local players but Sheriff Tiraspol is an exception. They contain players from countries such as Colombia, Ghana, Nigeria, Peru, Brazil, Greece and Uzbekistan.
There is also a Luxembourg player – midfielder Sébastien Thill – who is on loan from Progres Niederkorn and scored the staggering goal in the 90th minute to win the game at Real Madrid.
Perhaps their most important import, however, has been trainer Yuriy Vernydub from Ukraine. He brought them into the Champions League and organized their perfect start to the competition.