When a Champions League fairy tale is a contentious area


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Edmund Addo sank into a childlike pose in the middle of the field, his forehead touching the lawn, arms outstretched in front of him, a gesture of pleading and thanking. About 60 meters away, euphoria gripped his teammate Giorgos Athanasiadis, his legs bent as two colleagues tried to help him get up. Their coach, Yuriy Vernydub, danced on the touch line.

They all arrived at the Tiraspol Sheriff relatively recently: Addo, a midfielder from Ghana, and Greek goalkeeper Athanasiadis joined this summer; Vernydub was only a year ahead of them. However, they knew what that meant to their team, which had been waiting for two decades for this moment.

And they knew what that meant to them. They have increased their lives to move to a country that technically does not exist, to play for a team based in the disputed territory, to join a club that represents a state within a state, a place in gray tones that is not tied to the rest of the world. Now, after seeing off Zagreb’s Dinamo, the Croatian champions, they have received their award: Addo, Athanasiadis and the rest of the sheriff would be in Champions League.

The next day they would find out the identities of their opponents: Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and, best of all, Real Madrid would come to Moldova, the poorest European country, to compete in the most respected, richest, most watched club football competition.

At first glance, The sheriff’s story it may have a fairy-tale undertone, but the details – appropriately – are shown in shades of gray. Tiraspol, the city where the team is located, may be in Moldova as far as UEFA, the governing body of European football, is concerned. The sheriff may be the current, and essentially long-time champion of Moldova.

But Tiraspol is not considered part of Moldova. Instead, it is the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria — the Transnistrian Moldavian Republic, which will get its real name — a breakaway republic on the left bank of the Dniester River, a 25-mile-wide piece of land with its own currency (Transnistrian ruble), its own flag, red and green, with sickle and hammer) and its own government (Supreme Council).

The sheriff does not fit easily into the role of an outsider. In this century, he won all but two Moldovan titles. It is played in a state-of-the-art stadium complex built at a cost of $ 200 million in a league in which many of its opponents play on dilapidated pitches, surrounded by desolation, in front of just a few dozen fans.

His team is full of imports, from Africa and South America and much of Eastern Europe, while his rivals can only afford the local population. “Players are rarely bought for big money,” said Leonid Istrati, a prominent agent in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. “But only a sheriff can afford good players. Before, several other teams could have done it. I can’t now. ”

The source of the team’s financial power is in his name. The sheriff is the center of the private economy in Transnistria, a conglomerate founded by two former KGB agents in the chaotic days of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Transnistria’s war for independence from Moldova.

Its roots reportedly lie in the region historical smuggling. The criminal status of Transnistria, its porous borders and opaque history — one of the largest arms dumps in Europe — have long made it a haven for all kinds of illegal activities, from weapons to drug trafficking and cigarette counterfeiting.

The European Union Border Surveillance Force in 2006 estimated that, if the territory’s import statistics are accurate, each person in Transnistria ate more than 200 kilograms of frozen chicken legs each year. Even the sheriff’s founder, Viktor Gushan, admitted that his company had to workbetween things.

Now, however, the sheriff – a conglomerate and a club – is everywhere. He runs a supermarket chain. He works at gas stations. It has a winery, a TV channel and a telephone network. “It is important to remember that the Transnistrian region works entirely for the sheriff of Tiraspol,” said Ion Jalba, a journalist and commentator from Moldova. “In Tiraspol, everything is controlled by this company. There are sheriff’s shops and gas stations. The football club is like a child feeding the entire separatist area. ”

This is what allows the sheriff to pay his players as much as $ 15,000 a month to play against home opponents who earn only a few hundred dollars if paid on time. Zimbru Chisinau, historically the largest team in Moldova, survives only on the rent that the national team pays for the use of its stadium.

That, in turn, gave the sheriff considerable power. Despite the political differences between Moldova and Transnistria, the relationship between the Sheriff and the country’s football federation, the FMF, is seen as extremely close. “Football here is completely controlled by the sheriff,” said Cristian Jardan, a football journalist from Moldova.

Authorities have not only postponed games this season to give the sheriff time to prepare for Champions League qualifiers, but have also changed the rules on the number of foreign players the team can report to allow the club to bolster its team, Ion Testemitanu, the former Moldovan international said. and former vice president of the country’s football association. “No other team in Moldova can compete,” he said.

Many, therefore, do not even try. Last year, Moldovan anti-corruption investigators claimed as many as 20 matches in the country’s football leagues are repaired, and players paid gambling unions several hundred dollars to guarantee results. One whistleblower told the newspaper Ziarul da Garda that the players had been instructed that their job was to “earn, not win”.

Corruption is so widespread that in 2015, even Testemitan was approached by repairmen representing a union in Singapore. At the time, he was not only the vice-president of the national federation – FMF – but also the assistant manager of the Moldovan national team.

“They took me to a nice restaurant, they said they wanted information, and then after half an hour they told me what they were proposing,” he said. “They wanted to fix the national team games: youth teams, women’s teams, everything. I didn’t say anything, I just had to think about it. Then I immediately called the police and told them what had happened. ”

Testemitanu agreed to carry a recording device and would be accompanied by a surveillance team to help detectives gather evidence. His wife instructed him not to sleep at home so as not to endanger his family. “I was scared, of course,” he said. “I knew it was a risk. But I want normal football in Moldova. “Two weeks later, he told Testemitan, the conspirators were arrested.

That didn’t stop the problem; last year alone, Moldovan authorities claimed that fixers earned as much as $ 700,000 from bribing players to throw games. This is proof, he told Testemitan, of endemic corruption in Moldovan football, which journalists and investigators have documented extending to the FMF; Ziarul da Garde’s investigation, for example, found that several senior executives had amassed huge portfolios of assets working for the organization.

“FMF does not invest in Moldovan football,” he told Testemitan. “He invests in himself: he builds training camps and indoor soccer halls, but he doesn’t spread money from FIFA and UEFA to teams that need it.”

The presence of the sheriff in the group stage of the Champions League should be an opportunity to address this. The club itself will receive only $ 20 million just to go through the qualifiers; FMF will also benefit from the assistance of UEFA, a prize for a representative in this phase of the competition.

There is little hope that the money will affect Moldovan football. The academies in the country do not have enough funds, and their capacities are poor. Everywhere except for the sheriff. “He has an amazing academy,” Jardan said. “It simply came to our notice then. There are hardly any Moldovan players in the team that will play in the Champions League. It is not a Moldovan team. It is not even very Transnistrian. ”

With all that, there is great excitement because of the possibility that the Champions League will decorate even the disputed soil of Moldova. Testemitan considers it a “dream come true”. He has tickets for the Sheriff’s first game, against Ukrainian Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, and hopes to get tickets for visits to Inter Milan and Real Madrid.

He is willing to experience humiliation during a trip to Tiraspol – he is forced to show his passport at a border that his nation, nor the international community, does not recognize, to be registered by authorities still fetishizing Soviet-era iconography – for a chance to see those teams. The complaint is the same: Seeing a team from the Moldovan league in this scene, he said, “is a source of pride and a sense of wonder”.

They know it will come at a price, but there is also fatalism: it has been like this for so long that it is easy to wonder what difference it could make. “The money from the Champions League will count for the Sheriff, but even without him, it would be the richest team in Moldova anyway,” Jalba said.

“The people who run the club don’t care about money,” he told Testemitan. “They already have money. They don’t need $ 20 million. They control the whole state. It’s about reputation, about being in that highest league, in the Champions League. ”

Now that the sheriff is there, now that he has finally succeeded, all that is happening is that the difference is ingrained. The last streaks of the last shade of gray disappear and everything becomes black and white.

That’s what the sheriff was waiting for; the rest of Moldovan football may have feared that. He crystallizes the inevitability of the sheriff winning the league, over and over again, into eternity. Looking from Moldova, it is not a fairy tale about a brave hero, but just the opposite. It is the final victory of the giant. “For Moldovan football,” said Jordan, “this is the end.”


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