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Sheriff Tiraspol: Who are the Moldovan minnows making their Champions League debut?

12:00 BST 13/09/2021
Sheriff Tiraspol Champions League 2021-22
After coming through four rounds of qualifying, Real Madrid and Inter lie in wait for a club that is as intriguing as it is successful domestically

As the referee's whistle blew in Zagreb on August 25, some yellow-shirted Sheriff Tiraspol players fell face first to the turf of the Maksimir Stadium.

Head coach Yuriy Vernydub and his coaching staff hugged and danced in sheer delight. Several team-mates were shrugged off by goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis, the Greek shot-stopper on loan from AEK Athens wanting a moment to himself to soak up what had just happened.

Sheriff had made history. By holding Dinamo Zagreb to a 0-0 draw, they had progressed to the group stages of the Champions League - the first ever club from Moldova to do so.

In an age where European football is in constant danger of being permanently gatekept by a wealthy, self-appointed elite, this was immediately hailed as a great, and rare story of underdogs triumphant.

Certainly, when the draw was made a couple of days later, the magnitude of Sheriff's achievement was made even more stark.

Real Madrid, Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk - the most successful European club of all time, a Champions League winner and a Europa League champion - have all been placed in a pool with the "new Sheriffs in town", as one commentator gleefully referred to them as following their qualification.

On Wednesday, Sheriff will kick-off Group D at home to Shakhtar. Their first ever Champions League away game in the main draw is at Santiago Bernabeu two weeks later.

It is on one level a magical story. But on another, it is a strange and murky tale, not least because many fans and officials connected with the club would bridle if you called Sheriff 'the first club from Moldova' to reach this stage.

Sheriff were certainly made to work for their berth alongside Madrid, Inter et al at the top table. Having begun the 2021-22 Champions League in the first qualifying phase, they had to negotiate four rounds and eight games to get this far.

They beat Teuta of Albania, Armenian champions Alashkert and Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade prior to Dinamo, and their hopes of an improbable place in the first round proper received a giant boost when the Croatians were thrashed 3-0 in Tiraspol before a quiet goalless draw in the second leg was then safely negotiated.

Sheriff have dominated Moldovan football for years, winning 19 league titles since 2001, including nine of the last 10 and six in a row from 2015. All of this despite many in the city of Tiraspol not seeing themselves as being Moldovan at all.

Tiraspol is the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway state located on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border in which the majority of its citizens are ethnic Russians, rather than Moldovans.

Russia has a consulate and a significant military presence in Transnistria, and in 2014 their semi-independent parliament requested to join the Russian state following the annexation of Crimea.

Given their opponents this week, Shakhtar, had to move out of Donetsk in 2014 because of the Russo-Ukranian War - of which the Crimean annexation was a part - and have had to play their games in Kyiv since, this should create some interesting tensions between the clubs when they meet.

No members of the United Nations recognise Transnistria, so at present they remain an oddity of keenest interest to geography and politics nerds - not least because it is the only state still in existence on Earth which has the Soviet symbol of the hammer and sickle on its flag.

Regarding symbolism, the Sheriff's name and logo has brought about much attention and mirth, with casual observers wondering why this football club from Moldova seems to be harkening to the wild west of America.

The answer? Money.

The Sheriff that the club are named after are actually a conglomorate corporation formed in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which is now the second largest business in Transnistria.

Owners Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly have their fingers in just about every pie in the region, including the naming rights of the local football team. Sheriff have as much to do with cowboys as Red Bull Salzburg have to do with crimson cattle.

Sheriff, which owns businesses including, but not limited to, petrol stations, supermarkets, a television channel, a publishing house, a mobile phone network, constructions company and a factory which makes bread, dominate the Transnistrian commercial landscape thanks to the strange political status of the breakaway state, which is not conducive to attracting external commerical interest.

A monopoly means money, and a lot of that money has gone into the football club. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, meaning Sheriff FC have an even bigger advantage over their rivals than most super-rich clubs do in their domestic leagues.

Since being founded in 1997 and promoted to the Moldovan top flight (the Divizia Nationale) a year later, Sheriff have overtaken traditional Soviet powerhouses FC Zimbriu and have a grip on the league that would make Bayern Munich blush.

Of league campaigns played entirely in the 21st century, only in 2010-11 and 2014-15 have Sheriff not won the title.

The Sheriff Stadium complex, where they play their home games, was completed in 2002, costing approximately $200 million. No other club in Moldova, other than Zimbru, owns their own stadium or training facilities.

Yet it took two decades for what was essentially a free pass to the Champions League qualifiers to be converted into a group-stage appearance. Those celebrations on the pitch in Zagreb were not only of delight, but of relief.

Vernydub, a 55-year-old Ukranian, is the man to finally coach Sheriff over the line. Well respected as a manager in his homeland, he has previous in taking obscure eastern European clubs to new lands having guided Zorya Luhansk to the Europa League group stages in 2016-17.

On that occasion they earned draws with Fenerbahce and Feyenoord, and performed admirably against the eventual champions - Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

His squad is the usual electic mix of players from eastern Europe, South America and Africa which generally populate the clubs from the region who battle their way into European group-stage football.

Nations who will be represented by Sheriff at San Siro and the Bernabeu range from Malawi to Uzbekistan, Trinidad and Tobago to Luxembourg.

Their main man to watch is Adama Traore, a namesake of the Wolves and Spain star. The Mali international striker has hit the ground running in Moldova following a summer transfer from Metz, scoring nine goals in 16 league games.

He will be partnered up front by club captain Frank Castaneda, the Colombian who bagged 33 goals in 43 games across all competitions last summer.

Also of interest is midfielder Sebastien Thill, who will try and create from midfield. The Luxembourg international is older brother of NXGN 2017 alumnus Vincent Thill.

What this motley crew can do up against Karim Benzema and co remains to be seen, and anything other than six straight defeats must be seen as an achievement.

Whatever happens, they will be worth watching on and off the pitch. Just do not call them Moldovan - at least not to their faces.