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Recently, Sheriff Tiraspol,a small and almost unknown Moldovan team, pulled off one of the biggest shocks on the international football arena by beating Real Madrid in the Champions League on 28th September. The Moldovan champion based in Tiraspol, Transnistria, achieved the greatest result in their history by winning against the club with 13 Champions League titles.

Their achievement left an echo not only in the international press, but also aroused a heated debate in the Republic of Moldova: Should Moldova celebrate Sheriff’s victory?


Transnistria — is a self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognised breakaway region inside Moldova. Since declaring its independence from Moldova following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and a short, armed conflict in 1992, the self-proclaimed “republic” is leading an isolated existence with its own government, constitution, military, currency and bank system.

Sheriff is the centrepiece of the private economy in Transnistria, founded by two former KGB agents in the chaotic days of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is considered that Sheriff is de facto the “owner” of Transnistria, owning almost everything: supermarkets, petrol stations, Transnistria’s mobile network, KVINT brandy, and… the football team.

Sheriff is also considered to control all of the main leadership posts in the breakaway region, from the Parliament to the Prime Minister’s seat and the Presidency. In fact, Sheriff is the main beneficiary from Transnistria, being the most interested in consolidating the separatist regime.

Returning to football

Despite almost 30 years of frozen conflict, Moldova and its Transnistrian region do have one thing in common — a shared football league.

FC Sheriff entered the Moldovan league in 1998, one year after its founding, since then it has become the multiple champion of Moldova, winning 20 titles in 22 attempts andthus obtaining access to international championships.

Even though it is officially part of the National Football Division, Sheriff has never identified themselves with Moldova. Moreover, on September 2, when Transnistria celebrates each year of the so-called “Republic Day”, a congratulatory message was posted on their Facebook page, congratulating the region on their “independence” from Moldova. Although seemingly harmless,football proved to be a perfect political tool for the secessionist regime to promote Transnistria in the international arena, using Moldova as an access door.

However, when it comes to football, Moldovan society seems to be less affected by these political issues. Sheriff’s access to the Champions League, as well as the win over Real Madrid aroused a huge wave of joy among Moldovans. The reactions could be seen anywhere, on the streets, in crowded pubs or on social media. The vast majority perceived this success as Moldova’s success. In Moldova, the division is less felt among ordinary people. Especially when it comes to sports or music (for example, in recent years, artists from the Transnistrian region have represented Moldova several times at Eurovision). This contradicts the theory that the Transnistrian conflict was an ethnic-based conflict. People, regardless of ethnicity or language, have no issues living together and enjoying common success.

But in Moldova, amid applause and congratulations, there were also voices that questioned Sheriff’s victory. How legal and morally correct is it to celebrate the victory of a club financed by the separatist regime and from corrupt money? Besides the political aspect, the problem is also in the total lack of transparency in the club’s funding. Both Chisinau and the international media have reported that money comes from smuggling schemes, money laundering and the black market.

Sheriff, whose team is valued at roughly $13.6 million, will receive €21.2 million for its performance in the Champions Leagues, and the amount would increase depending on results from their upcoming matches. Moreover, if Sheriff manages to qualify for the next phase, it would receive another €9.6 million. Given that the club does not pay any taxes to the Moldovan state budget, this money offered by UEFA will bypass the Moldovan authorities and will go directly to those who run the Transnistrian region. Thus, further strengthening the position of the separatist regime.

The cost of inaction

Once FC Sheriff gains notoriety in the international arena following their recent successes, it is obvious that the Transnistrian separatist authorities will gain more visibility and hence, a degree of “social legitimacy”. Football used as a “soft power” tool is a perfect way to put Tiraspol on the map of Europe. What they did not succeed through regular public diplomacy, Tiraspol succeeds today through football. Despite many refuting this idea, football and politics very often go hand-in-hand.

As this topic progresses and becomes relevant, it may be time for the Moldovan authorities to finally regulate this area. The participation of the football teams in the national and international championship under the Moldovan flag, but also the transparency of their financing should be brought back into discussion. This seemingly “non politicized” subject may represent a serious security risk. Sheriff is the “elephant in the room” that the Moldovan authorities pretend not to notice. It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of these events will be.