The Eurasian steppe comes to rest at the banks of the Dniester river, a sweeping expanse settling between the soft curves of blue. Across the river, the Moldovan plain extends westward. It is a scene of geological symbiosis: two worlds meeting in a quaint, forgotten corner of Europe. However, this humble landscape offers no existential respite. Instead, it represents a sad juxtaposition, an illusory and provocative falsity. These two worlds, these two banks, exist in paralleled but fractious realities. The ideological divide of the Dniester may well swell as wide as the Black Sea into which it flows.
On the west bank of the Dniester is traditional Bessarabia, on the east is Transnistria. Moldova maintains recognised international jurisdiction over both lands. In reality, the Romanian-speaking Moldovan government controls only the western bank; a breakaway institution governs Transnistria’s Russia-backing populous.
Moldova is an intriguing country, an occidental society cut from old Soviet cloth. During the collapse of the USSR, a Moldovan nationalist movement swept across the whole of the Moldavian SSR, encompassing both Moldovan Bessarabia and heterogeneous Transnistria. Russian members of the soviet parliament were attacked and Russian was repealed as the national language in favour of Romanian.
Russian sympathisers – namely Ukrainian and Russian-speaking minorities – fled across the Dniester, settling in Transnistria. They declared independence from Moldova in 1990, hoping to preserve ties with Moscow. Tensions between the breakaway Transnistrian government and the Moldovan Republic, who claimed Transnistria as part of their new Romanian speaking state, came to a head in 1992 as violence on the border escalated into war between the two sides.
Four and a half months of fighting yielded no progress for either and a ceasefire was duly agreed. Over two decades on, no formal peace has been resolved between the two states, with Transnistria operating autonomously within Moldova without international recognition. But while the relationship between these two sides is frozen, the Dniester continues to flow, linking the romantic lilt of the Moldovan plain with Transnistria’s sharp Cyrillic steppes.
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Abus runs across a battered bridge, from the east bank of the Dniester to the west. Destroyed two decades ago in the Transnistrian war, this bridge now supports the delicate strip of concrete connecting breakaway capital Tiraspol with Chisinau, the Moldovan seat of government. Guards at checkpoints on either side of the river check the bus’s credentials. On the east, they smile when they see the badge adorning the side of the vehicle, a star synonymous with Transnistria and with football; on the west, the star meets steely eyes. It is the symbol of FC Sheriff Tiraspol.
Sheriff Tiraspol are the reigning Moldovan league champions, a contrary title for a team based in the capital of a breakaway state. It’s a bit like crowning an Abkhazian team champions of Georgia or seeing Taipei City Tatung win the Chinese Super League. However, this surreal situation has borne fruit for Sheriff, much to the chagrin of Moldovan nationalists. The Tiraspol-based side have dominated Moldovan football and been champions 14 times from the last 16 seasons.
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Formed in 1997 by Transnistrian company Sheriff, a local holding company – founded by ex-KGB agents Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly – that maintains monopolies over most industries within the state, the team offers the Transnistrian public a cultural focal point in an otherwise bleak territory. Sheriff themselves use their football team as a means of masking nefarious activities, namely illicit economic transactions and corrupt political ties with the territory’s ruling factions.
Transnistria’s status as an economic black zone makes illicit business a profitable enterprise. While Transnistrian companies must process cross-border transactions through Moldovan customs authorities, the region remains replete with corruption on both a domestic and international scale, Sheriff the kingpin in this enterprise.
However, despite Sheriff’s tainted name in the realm of business, they maintain a reputable football club. Bankrolled by the company, the side have facilities more akin to England than Eastern Europe. The Sheriff Stadium is the toast of Transnistria, the plush ground adjacent to manicured training pitches and a five-star hotel. Such is the quality of the stadium that the Moldovan national team occasionally use it for international fixtures – not that many Sheriff players split time on the ground for club and country.
Sheriff prefer to recruit from outside Moldova, their team comprising of Burkina Faso internationals, Brazilian journeymen, ex-Swiss youth teamers and the occasional Moldovan international. It is strange for the nation’s most prominent and successful side to be a near non-factor in domestic youth development. In the Moldovan squad called-up for October’s World Cup qualifiers, only four of the 26 players came from the Transnistrian side and from those four only one, Vladislav Ivanov, was developed in the Sheriff academy.
While Sheriff Tiraspol play much of their football west of the Dniester, their fixtures don’t necessarily represent formative steps toward a thawing of tensions. This is no example of therapeutic sporting diplomacy, no cross-trench Christmas 1914 kick-about or 1998 Iran-US olive-branch extension. Football is maintaining a dialogue between Moldova and Transnistria, but it is also serving as a reminder of their differences. In Sheriff stadium, chants of “Russia! Russia!” ring out with voracity during meetings with Chisinau clubs while Moldovan players are viciously insulted.
Sheriff’s style of play changes depending upon their ambience. In Moldova they tend to dominate opponents, picking them apart using their skilled front four in a 4-2-3-1 system. Brazilian winger Ricardinho has been a fixture of the side since 2013 and is their main creative hub from the left of the attacking midfield three. His style dovetails well with Bosnian international winger Zoran Kvržić. The two interchange with creative abandon, broad strokes of creative genius a rarity in a land replete with stark concrete likenesses of Lenin.
Sheriff’s star man is Croatian defensive midfielder Josip Brezovec. He provides balance in the midfield pivot, creating from deep and finishing off plays with Lampard-esque late runs into the box. This season he’s been irresistible, hitting five goals and providing another seven assists in the first 12 matches.
However, despite their domestic dominance and free flowing football, they adopt a more cautious approach in Europe – to mixed results. Beaten in the third qualifying round of the Champions League by Israeli outfit Hapoel Be’er Sheva this year, Sheriff achieved brief continental recognition when they reached the Europa League group stage in 2013.
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That season they faced off with Tottenham Hotspur, Anzhi Makhachkala, and Tromsø in Group K. Against their North London opponents they saved face by dropping both results only 2-0 and 2-1, maintaining relative defensive solidity despite ceding over 70 percent possession in both ties. Three draws, two with Anzhi and one with Tromso, and a win over the Norwegian side in their other four group fixtures meant Sheriff finished a reputable third in the table and cemented their status as a stubborn, albeit uninspiring, side.
While football has given Transnistria recognition beyond the world of black-market dealings, it also has perpetuated the sad reality of the breakaway territory. There exists an obvious potential, a palpable air of grandeur about the club removed from the generally deplorable condition of Moldovan football. However, it exists to deify and suppress, not to inspire.
Sheriff Tiraspol is the company’s – Sheriff’s – cultural capital; a flaunting of economic strength and Transnistrian superiority over Moldova for the end of disguising the company’s institutionalised corruption. They want to beat Moldova at their own game, their national game, with a team of foreigners put up in an ivory tower that is the Sheriff Stadium. They are proving the superiority of the rubble over the leu, of the instant return of Russian cash over the money-starved grassroots approach of most Moldovan clubs. And yet, their success is empty.
Their supporters deride Moldovan internationals; empty insults when they have yet to see the rise of a devout Transnistrian superstar. Many Tiraspol-born players play for Moldova despite the acidic undertones of the Transnistrian populous. They cling to success as an end, not a means toward cultural mobility or societal unity.
It is a twisted world east of the Dniester, where surf meets steppe. The steppe rises east, toward Ukraine, Russia, the land of the Cassocks and the Tartars, rife with political turmoil and violent cultural heterogeneity. Transnistria lies at the foot of these hills, removed from the Western world, frozen in soviet times. The people cling to old promises, to custom; Russia the benefactor, concrete synonymous with social progress. Like the Soviet sporting outfits of old — CDKA Moscow, the army side and Dynamo Moscow, affiliated with the KGB — their football team works in tandem with their state’s ruling factions.
Today, Sheriff, a local company with monopolies over most Transnistrian services and nominal control over the government, is the despot disguised in free-market robe. Their team dominates Moldovan football with foreigners, ignites anti-Moldova passions, invigorates nationalist and isolationist sentiment, and yet, they offer no step forward. They exist to repress, not to promote, to maintain power, not majority rule.
Sheriff Tiraspol win the league every year – it’s a law of life that has been challenged only twice by Moldovan football’s chasing pack. This year will likely prove no different despite some shaky early season form. But while Sheriff prepare a space on their trophy cabinet for title number 15, they must once again swallow a bitter pill. Carved into the trophy will be the word Campioni, not in Russian but in Romanian. It will remind them that what they graft for, what they cheat for, is something to which they have no connection and no true purpose. It is debased from sporting values: a sadistic obsession.
By Liam Walk