The opening fixture of Champions League Group D notionally pitted a team from Ukraine against – for the first time ever – one from neighboring Moldova.
But when the Champions League anthem boomed out ahead of Sheriff Tiraspol’s historic 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday night, it simultaneously be drowned out two of Europe’s ongoing but often forgotten conflicts.
Shakhtar’s plight will be familiar, the Ukrainian champions having been playing in exile in Lviv, Kharkiv and now the capital Kyiv since the eastern city of Donetsk became embroiled in a war involving Russia-backed separatists in 2014.
Less well known are debutants Sheriff Tiraspol, the first ever representatives of the Republic of Moldova in the Champions League. But while UEFA, and indeed the broader international community, officially consider the city of Tiraspol to be Moldovan, most inhabitants would insist that their city is the capital of Trans-Dniester, or Transnistria.
A narrow strip of land measuring 400 kilometers from north to south between the Dniester river and Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, Trans-Dniester — also known as Transnistria — is a self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized breakaway state – population: 450,000.
Since declaring its independence from Moldova following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and a short but bloody war in 1992, an ongoing cease-fire has seen Trans-Dniester leading an isolated existence with its own government, flag, military, currency and postal service.
In 1991, the Soviet Union broke into pieces from which 15 new sovereign countries were born. Yet Transnistria, the Russian-speaking region in the easternmost part of Moldova, was not among them. The self-proclaimed “presidential republic” has its government, army, flag, emblem, anthem and even passports, which are valid in only three countries in the world.
Anton Polyakov was born in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol in 1990, the year the region declared independence from Moldova. He has been capturing the daily life of Transnistrians since 2012. “For many, Transnistria is a new country without a past, but some see it as a continuation of the Soviet Union,” says the photographer. Portrayed here is famous Soviet footballer Alexander Veryovkin.
When Polyakov was 2, tensions between the country and the region led to a war, which was quickly put down by Russia’s intervention. “People are still sentimental about the Soviet times here,” says Polyakov. May 9, the “Victory Day” of the Great Patriotic War between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, is remembered across the region with battle reenactments.
The Transnistrian government wants to be ready to fight on real front lines, too. Basic military training is part of high school curricula, military parades take place every year and body-building contests are hugely popular. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the region owns 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes of Soviet-era weaponry.
The OSCE report from 2015 also states that Russian military personnel is still present in Transnistria, despite the 1999 Istanbul Summit deal to withdraw. “People here see Russia as the main guarantor of security in the region and want Russia’s recognition,” says Polyakov. Most Transnistrians voted for independence and potential future integration into Russia in a referendum held in 2006.
With a population of roughly 475,000 and an area of 4,163 square kilometers, Transnistria is one of the smallest countries in Europe, yet its per capita GDP is comparable to that of Nigeria. The economy is driven by heavy industry, electricity production and textile manufacturing, but the trade restrictions related to the Ukrainian conflict are bringing the region close to economic collapse.
While there are jobs in the cities – albeit poorly paid, with an average salary of 180 euros ($200) – living in the Transnistrian countryside is a different story. “We may think it is great to live in the picturesque nature of the region, but there are no opportunities nor infrastructure. With nothing to do, young people leave and go to the cities or Russia as soon as they can,” says Polyakov.
The future of Transnistria is dependent on Russia, which views the region as strategically important. And it intends to stick with “the format of the existing peacekeeping mission in Transnistria,” which essentially means keeping Russian soldiers there. “This is why Transnistria is still not an independent political player. This makes my home a hostage to the political situation,” says Polyakov.
And now, after Sheriff Tiraspol followed up qualification wins over Red Star Belgrade (2-1 on aggregate) and Dinamo Zagreb (3-0) with a 2-0 opening day group stage win over Shakhtar, it has its own Champions League football team, too.
“I never believed that Moldovan football would ever have a team in the Champions League group stage,” Gavril Balint, a European Cup winner with Steaua Bucharest in 1986 who coached Sheriff Tiraspol for one season in 2002-03, told DW.
“But they have proved their worth over four very tough [qualifying] games. It’s a huge achievement.”
An achievement not just for current coach Yuriy Vernydub, himself from neighboring Ukraine, and his players but, like anything else which happens in Trans-Dniester, an achievement for Sheriff Ltd. – the shadowy corporation which dominates almost every aspect of life in the region.
Precise information about Sheriff is hard to come by. Founded by former Soviet security agents – ex-KGB according to German weekly Die Zeit – Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly in June 1993, the company owns supermarkets, petrol stations, construction companies, hotels, a mobile phone network, bakeries, a distillery and television and radio channels in the region, and also has close ties to the ruling Obnovlenie (“Renewal”) political party, which has had a majority on the Supreme Council since 2005.
“Sheriff is a central institution in the country,” explains Sabine von Löwis of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, who has spent time researching in Trans-Dniester. “They don’t just finance the football club; they effectively control the country economically and politically.”
Originally founded as Tiras Tiraspol before being renamed and rebranded, “FC Sheriff” have since won 19 Moldovan league titles and 10 cups. They’ve featured in the Europa League on four occasions and are now the first “Moldovan” club to reach the Champions League group stage.
Opened in 2002, the Sheriff Stadium in Tiraspol isn’t just the most modern stadium in Trans-Dniester, but in all of Moldova, so much so that the Moldovan national team regularly plays home games in a region which has effectively broken away from the country.
Balint arrived in Tiraspol just as the stadium and surrounding complex became operational and has fond memories of his year there — at least in terms of football.
“My experience at Sheriff was positive. The training camp was extraordinary, the conditions very good with six training pitches and three stadiums,” he tells DW. “I had a large office with all the equipment I needed to analyze games and prepare the team. We created a strong side with a combination of good transfers and some talents from the youth team.”
His predecessor, fellow Romanian Mihai Stoichita, was less impressed, reportedly quitting because Sheriff founder and owner Gushan had fired two players without the coach’s consent.
Balint, however, speaks well of Gushan, insisting: “He’s a very intelligent man. I would meet him every week after games to analyze games and discuss any problems. He used to invite me to have lunch and we had a great relationship. He liked people to speak to him directly, to tell him whatever they had on their mind.
“The others around him in the club weren’t that talkative, you could still sense the communist vibes. They were very humble people and wouldn’t speak badly of their bosses.”
Sheriff Tiraspol played Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League back in 2013
Old habits die hard in Trans-Dniester. During the Soviet Union, the region had been of great industrial importance to Moscow, being only 100 kilometers from the Black Sea port of Odessa and favorably located on the Dniester river. Russian had also become the dominant language.
The Soviet legacy endures in 2021, with an estimated 60% of the region’s economy controlled by Sheriff – and, by extension, the state – and with around 1,500 Russian troops stationed in the region as guarantors of the 1992 cease-fire between Moldova and Trans-Dniester separatists.
“There are certainly political links to Russia, also in education and in many aspects of the economy,” says von Löwis. “But many younger people are just as Europe-orientated, so it will be interesting to see how that develops in future and what political effect that could have.”
Indeed, Trans-Dniester companies like textiles manufacturer Tirotex and distillery Kvint export to the European Union as much as Russia, taking advantage of an association agreement between Moldova and the EU that has existed since 2016. But other businesses are less reputable and, with Moldova unable to control its own eastern border, smuggling and corruption is rife.
Furthermore, a 2020 US Department of State report listed arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, torture and serious restrictions on freedom of movement among a long list of human rights abuses observed in Trans-Dniester, conditions which are at risk of being glossed over by FC Sheriff’s participation in the Champions League.
“Maybe the Champions League will increase international attention,” says von Löwis. “But it could also be a chance for Sheriff to present itself as a charitable, philanthropic organization which promotes sport, covering up its monopoly in politics and the economy and the lack of democracy through sportswashing.”
With further group games against European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan to come, Sheriff couldn’t have wished for a more prominent platform upon which to present themselves to the world.
There is no mention of Trans-Dniester’s unique political situation on UEFA’s website, which prefers to extol the virtues of Sheriff’s “multinational squad,” including Greek goalkeeper Georgios Athanasiadis, Brazilian fullbacks Cristiano and Fernando Constanza, Ghanaian midfielder Edmund Addo and Colombian striker and captain, Frank Castaneda.
It’s a far cry from Gavril Balint’s champions in 2002-03, when the most “exotic” foreign imports were from nearby Romania.
“It was always the owner’s dream to play in the Champions League but, looking back, the team that I coached couldn’t have qualified,” he admits. “There was even an idea to move the team to Ukraine in order to face stronger clubs and transfer better players, but that didn’t happen.
“Now, the quality has improved. They have bought Brazilians, Portuguese, many internationals, many Latin players with good technique and different qualities.”