Sheriff Tiraspol: Are Champions League debutants a Russian soft power project?
When soccer minnows Sheriff Tiraspol take on Europe’s most successful team tonight, you might forgive his players for having an inferiority complex.
Sheriff, from the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, is playing the Champions League for the first time this season. His opponent on Tuesday night, Real Madrid, won the prestigious tournament 13 times, a record. A year after Sheriff was founded in the late 1990s, Madrid won their sixth European Cup or Champions League title.
However, while Sheriff is a small player on the European scene, with us it is a big problem. In the club’s 24-year history, he has dominated at the national level, winning the Moldovan Championship 19 times, ten Moldovan Cups and seven Super Cups.
But with the club’s success, questions have arisen about the motivation of those who support the club. Are they motivated solely by sporting ambition or is the aim to combine achievements on the ground with deeper political goals?
“It is a soft power proposed and strongly recommended by the Russian Federation, which it wanted and continues to persevere to persuade Moldova to recognize Transnistria as a subject of a potential federation,” the former told Euronews. diplomat and political analyst Igor Munteanu.
A brief history of Transnistria
Moldova, wedged between Romania and Ukraine near the Black Sea, declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Transnistria, a narrow strip of land near Ukraine, split from Moldova a year later after a brief conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Moldovan army.
The region is now more or less divided into three equal minorities: Ukrainians, Russians and Moldovans and in some cases have four passports, Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan and Romanian.
About half of those living in Transnistria have Russian nationality and its government is close to Moscow.
Russia has between 1,500 and 2,000 troops in Transnistria, apparently as peacekeepers, and the status quo remains one of the longest “frozen conflicts” in Central Europe.
This suited Moldova and the Kremlin over decades of predominantly pro-Russian leadership, but the recent election of a pro-European president with a parliamentary majority – the first in Moldova’s history – points to a shift in the course with regard to Transnistria.
Chisinau has been pushing for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria for years. Moscow says the withdrawal of its troops will rekindle war between Moldova and pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria.
There’s a new sheriff in town
Sheriff Tiraspol was founded in 1997 and has enjoyed unprecedented success.
The club is owned by local oligarch Viktor Gushan, a former KGB officer close to the Kremlin and local secessionist elites. He controls the Sheriff holding company, which owns all the major businesses in the region, ranging from supermarkets, gas stations, caviar, textiles to communications and cryptocurrency businesses.
Gushan has been a successful businessman for the past three decades, expanding his business in Ukraine with telecommunications company Interdnestrcom, who was allegedly spying for Russia, according to RISE Moldova.In 2015, Interdnestrcom was authorized by Russia to operate in the annexed Crimean peninsula, the investigative journalism project added.
“Viktor Gushan is himself a former soldier and KGB man and, with a Russian passport, is a staunch supporter of Rusky Mir [Russian worlds] with Transnistria as one of its centers, “Mihai Isac, a Moldovan political scientist, told Euronews.
“The football club is involved in various actions aimed at promoting relations between Transdniestria and Russia. The sheriff’s conglomerate de facto controls the entire region, sometimes referred to as the Sheriff’s Republic.”
The sheriff’s holding company also has political ties, according to Isac.
“The ruling party, Obnovlenie, is considered the political arm of the sheriff. In addition, the Russian army in the region and the paramilitary forces of the Tiraspol authorities have important contracts with various companies affiliated with the sheriff’s conglomerate,” he said. declared Isac.
Sheriff’s footballers regularly participate in various public demonstrations of the Russian army in Transnistria, he added.
” Consequently, he [the club’s success] is a huge public relations boost in this region, ”he added.
Champions League debut is a “miracle”
For fan Toma Blanaru, 26, the idea of his team playing against players like Real Madrid is a dream come true.
“I’ve been watching Sheriff’s games since 2006,” he said. “Fifteen years have passed since then, during which I dreamed that Sheriff would reach the Champions League groups. Now they have achieved this miracle by eliminating in turn the champions of Albania, Armenia, Serbia and of Croatia, “he told Euronews.
Toma added that he was amazed by the team’s style of play – “aggressive pressing, long-range shots, dominating their opponent”.
“The Moldovans have a unique opportunity to watch top clubs like Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk live,” Toma said.
The club’s Champions League group stage debut is expected to bring in € 17million.
“It is a big plus financial because, in addition to the performance of the sheriff, the other Moldovan clubs will also benefit from large sums of money from UEFA solidarity,” said Moldovan sports journalist Sandu Grecu. “We regard Sheriff’s success as a success for Moldovan football.”
But others point to the scarcity of Moldovan players among the sheriff’s main players as proof that this is more of a celebration for Transnistria.
“We know in Moldovan football that Sheriff is a phenomenon exploited by the pro-Russian media in Transnistria or in Moldova,” Isac said. “Therefore, any success is presented as the success of Transdniestrian football and, by extension, of Russian football.”
Euronews has reached out to Sheriff Tiraspol for comment on this article but the club had not responded at the time of going to press.
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