Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Welcome to Never Mind the Bolsheviks, a new blog about football in the 15 former Soviet republics who used to nestle behind the Iron Curtain.
And there’s no better place to start than with a piece of history being made recently in Moldova… or a place nearby.
Unlike almost every other league in the former Soviet Union, Moldova’s Divizia Naţională is at the business end of the season and Sheriff Tiraspol sit 15 points ahead of their nearest rivals, Dacia Chişinău, with three games left to play.
Their 3-0 win at seventh-placed Nistru Otaci on Saturday April 25 brought them their ninth successive league title, eclipsing their bitter rivals Zimbru Chişinău’s haul of eight championships since Moldova achieved independence in 1991.
FFT.com: Putting Moldova on the map
Sheriff are something of an anomaly in Moldovan football; in fact, some would argue – passionately – that they aren’t even Moldovan at all.
The team are based in Transdniestr, a Soviet-loyal breakaway republic occupying a sliver of land in the east of Moldova, where statues of Lenin and images of the hammer and sickle still defiantly adorn streets littered with government posters requesting citizens donate 30 centimetres of hair. NMTB didn’t see much evidence that this appeal was successful.
In 1992 they fought for their independence in a civil war known colloquially as the “Drunken War”. Bizarrely, officers of the Transdniestrian and Moldovan forces – who until the previous year had been quite close chums in the Red Army – got together in the evenings to indulge in that popular Eastern European pastime of getting blind drunk until the wee hours.
They met to reminisce and to discuss the day’s events, in what were probably quite heated debates until they reached that stage of inebriation where they were slurring “I love yous” across the table at each other, before retiring to their respective barracks for the night.
The following morning they swapped alcohol for AK47s and attempted to kill each other, until the evening came round and they met up for an after-battle pint or two again. It’s thirsty work, war is.
"I'm jusht having a resht"
Unsurprisingly the conflict ended in stalemate and ever since Transdniestr has been left in a state of limbo, receiving only tacit approval by Russia who has thousands of troops stationed there.
When they weren’t having a night on the tiles with their Moldovan adversaries, Transdniestrian officers were busy forming Sheriff, a pervasive company that owns almost every business in the region and is in close cahoots with president Igor Smirnov, who has ruled the schismatic state since its declaration of independence in 1991.
Transdniestrians can shop at Sheriff supermarkets, top up their cars at Sheriff petrol stations, and gamble away the savings they have in Sheriff’s banks at the company’s casinos. There’s even a Sheriff water park under construction.
Tethered horses not shown
In 1997 they branched out into sport, forming Sheriff Tiraspol and building a £100 million stadium replete with a 40-hectare academy for the club, who were given a brief rubric: dominate Moldovan football. And they’ve duly obliged.
No one has come close to challenging Moldova’s, sorry, Transdniestr’s finest, and this season they’ve won the league at a canter, adding yet another cup to a bulging trophy cabinet.
The club are on the verge of an unprecedented treble this year. In January Sheriff won the CIS Cup – nothing to do with Scotland’s insurance-sponsored secondary knockout, but the annual get-together for the champions of each former Soviet state.
And later this month they’ll be attempting to win their sixth Cupa Moldovei when they face Dacia Chişinău in the final.
Who says you can’t buy success?
New sheriff in town
If anything, they were formed as much to be a propaganda tool to use against Moldova as they were to give Transdniestrians a sense of identity.
Moldova is Europe’s poorest country and Transdniestr its least affluent region, where the average wage is around £100 per month, yet Sheriff’s players – recruited from around the world on mindboggling wages – earn thousands a week.
And they live in luxurious apartments adjoining the ground overlooked by a series of rundown, Soviet-era tenement blocks where 99 percent of Transdniestrians reside.
It’s also unlikely that the locals can afford one of the gleaming fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars on the forecourt of the stadium's adjoining showroom.
During the filming of Simon Reeve’s illuminating BBC television series Holidays in the Danger Zone: Places That Don’t Exist he was offered a top-of-the-range vehicle if his documentary about Transdniestr led to Britain formally recognising the pariah state.
Sadly it wasn’t a sweetener presented to NMTB on its last visit to the Sheriff Stadium.
Nice ground in a nasty neighbourhood
An onsite hotel is presently under construction at the ground, but if you want to visit (don’t – it’s horrendous and at the “border” officials will extort cash out of you travelling both ways) you could stay at the wonderfully-named Hotel Timothy.
Befitting the republic’s Stalinist feel, the place resembles something out of Goodnight Sweetheart.
There may be a better hotel in Transdniestr, but NMTB certainly hasn’t come across one during a dozen or so trips across the Dniestr so far.
One thing that isn’t in question is Sheriff’s hegemony over the Divizia Naţională and their place in the second qualifying round of the Champions League next season; it’s probably the only time they’ll call themselves Moldovan.
Those Transdniestrian passports they use wouldn’t be much good, though.
It would be a real fillip for the republic, although probably not for Moldova, if they do make it to the group stages of the competition at the ninth time of asking and put Transdniestr on the map.
Sheriff Tiraspol versus Manchester United. Now that could be an interesting away day for the Red Devils...
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Thank you for this article. I would enjoy readding a follow up article that describes the team's best players, the coach and any other interesting tidbits about the players or the way the team plays.
Brilliant stuff. Never gets old hearing about our friends from behind the wall.
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