The NYT has a fascinating article about FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the dominant soccer team of the Moldovan league which has won the national title 11 times in the last twelve years. Well good, yes, but the funny fact is that FC Sheriff Tiraspol is not based in Moldova but in the breakaway sliver of land called Transnistria, which borders Moldova to the west and the Ukraine to the east.
Transnistria, an offshoot of the disintegrating USSR in the early 90s was supposed to accede to newly formed Moldova but instead decided to fight a war of independence while declaring its autonomy. It maintained friendly relations with Russia, creating a Supreme Soviet style government and allowing the Russians to run a military base outside of Tiraspol, its capital.
However, the soccer team is a different story, as FIFA/ UEFA refused to grant it legitimacy because of the political dispute and so instead FC Sheriff became part of the Moldovan league. Where much to the chagrin of the Moldovans, it has flourished becoming the regions best known team with a spanking top of the line stadium and pitch. It is also the only team that gains eligibility to compete for the Champions League. Their fans seemingly love rubbing it in when they win against a Moldovan side often seeking confrontation with their in your face celebrations.
Sheriff Tiraspol is owned by two former KGB agents, Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, who made their fortune in the region in real estate and oil. Sheriff, the parent company runs everything from gas stations to supermarkets to a mobile phone network. The real owner is supposedly Igor Smirnov, the former premier of Transnistria, a godfather like figure who allegedly uses the company as a front for his money laundering operations. Unsurprisingly, Sheriff has been accused of undue influence in the political process as they have looked to support politicians who push a pro business agenda.
To that end they have supported Smirnov, an old style Soviet apparatchik but also put their eggs in other baskets including the reform minded Renewal, the main opposition party, whose former chairman Yevgeny Shevchuk came to power last December running as an independent on the platform of business reforms and a closer relationship with Moldova which was frowned upon by Russia who supported his rival Anatoliy Kaminski, the former assistant speaker of the Supreme Soviet, and now present speaker. Shevchuk used to sit on the board of Sheriff.
It's all complex and murky and tied to Transnistria's ambiguous existence, finding common cause with disputed territories like South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, and Abkhazia and yet tied uneasily to its hosts through the soccer team. As the NYT article points out, the spokesperson was happy to talk about the team and their league chances but he was less forthcoming about putting Transnistria on the map or where they got their money from. FC Sheriff are now in the midst of their Europa campaign and are meeting L'OM on Thursday.