How Dundalk’s opponents Sheriff started on wrong side of the law
The founders of the club took advantage of the anomaly that is Transnistria
A statue of Lenin in front of Transnistria parliament building in Tiraspol. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images
When Dundalk arrive in Transnistria to play Sheriff Tiraspol on Thursday, they will travel a road that has startled and baffled many before them. What waits for them in Tiraspol is a living museum of an extinct Soviet past, with Sheriff situated awkwardly at its centre.
Uefa say Dundalk’s Europa League opponents are Moldovan. But that’s not what anyone around town will tell you. This Russian-speaking sliver of land, on the muddy banks of the Dniester River, fought a war to secede from Moldova in 1992. The ‘republic’ of Transnistria, legally subject to rule from Chisinau but in reality a Russian client state, sits outside of international law. It’s football team have profited hugely as a result.
Dozens of other clubs have gone to the wall since independence for Moldova in 1991
Sheriff Tiraspol, champions of Moldova but pride of Transnistria, were founded by two former KGB officers who got rich off the privatisation gold rush that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union. In 1993, Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly set up a holding company, Sheriff LLC, a glorified smuggling operation established as a charity seemingly to assist the families of police veterans.
The result, in an impoverished football ecosystem such as this, was inevitable. Mega-rich Sheriff are serial title-winners in the Moldovan Divizia National. The depth of their financial resources put the country’s football infrastructure to shame. Their $200 million stadium and training complex on the outskirts of town are breathtaking, even by western standards. Meanwhile, dozens of other clubs have gone to the wall since independence for Moldova in 1991. Yet Sheriff, the experimental product of an all-powerful financial and political conglomerate, have it all, including a monopoly on the league crown.
Tiraspol is a colour board of grey, grey and more grey, interrupted by the occasional fluttering hammer and sickle Transnistrian flag
It all had shady beginnings. Back in the early 1990s, during the early days of free-market racketeering, the Sheriff company took over the black market for cigarettes, alcohol and sundry goods coming into Transnistria across its porous borders from Ukraine, formalising and industrialising the flow of contraband moving westwards across Europe from the Black Sea.
“Weapons, cigarettes, meat. They take it from Odessa [in Ukraine], and they export it to Moldova, and to Russia. Sheriff have made an economic empire this way. They have made a monopoly of provisions,” explains Octavian Tîcu, a former sports minister in the Moldovan government and present candidate for the country’s presidency.
When the Soviet Union folded, Transnistria got the worst of both worlds; brutal economic collapse but none of the liberalising reforms enjoyed by the rest of the former empire. Instead, desperation to avoid being swallowed up by an ethnic Romanian super state drove them into a frenzied nostalgia for the Russian world.
Thirty years later, almost nothing has changed. Dirty Ladas rattle along the cracked and uneven roads. Lenin watches over the ‘Supreme Soviet’ building on Karl Marx Strada. Tiraspol is a colour board of grey, grey and more grey, interrupted by the occasional fluttering hammer and sickle Transnistrian flag, invariably accompanied by the tricolour of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Transnistrian rubles are obtainable only from inside the republic’s borders, and it is an offence to travel with them back into Moldova.
Sheriff have failed to find the same success as their Ukrainian counterparts in making their imports marketable to teams in western Europe
Among it all, Sheriff Tiraspol look an anomaly. Their squad is a checkerboard of nationalities and cultures from around the world. The club’s early business model attempted to replicate the successes of Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, importing unknowns from South America and bulking up their sell-on value. These days, Africa is the new vogue; players from Senegal, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia and Ghana are all a part of coach Zoran Zekic’s line-up as they aim to reach the Europa League group stages. But the business plan began to come unstuck years ago.
“Now, there is no successful business model in buying players from abroad and selling at a profit,” says Petr Lulenov, board member of the Transnistria Football Federation and ex-director at fellow Tiraspol outfit Dinamo Auto. Sheriff have failed to find the same success as their Ukrainian counterparts in making their imports marketable to teams in western Europe. “These days, they’re lucky if they can sell for the same money they paid.”
At least the football side of the business looked like paying off, for a time. Twice during the last decade, the team have come within a game of reaching the Champions League group stage, and there have been worthy run-outs in the Europa League. Ambitions are more diluted in Tiraspol now. Last season, the team was humbled 3-0 at home by Georgian minnows Saburtalo, ending their European hopes at the first hurdle.
Partly the change has been down to the shift in the political climate. The 2014 civil war in Ukraine and the subsequent partition of the country near its eastern border with Russia prompted a re-evaluation of border policy in the region, and of the ease with which criminal enterprises operate here.
“In Transnistria, they have no rules,” says Tîcu. “But they need the complicity of Ukrainian factors.” Following the illegal secession of Ukraine’s eastern territories, that complicity has been less forthcoming. Customs checks jointly administered by the Moldova and Ukrainian authorities have been installed on the border for the first time, cutting off some of the supply chains that link Odessa to the Moldovan capital Chisinau, via Tiraspol. This, says Tîcu, has brought the “golden age of Sheriff” to an end.
And yet, Sheriff’s way of doing business has become an accepted fact of life in Transnistria, and beyond. “In the European competitions, nobody will ask how you came to be in first place,” says Lulenov. “They know only that you are the champions.”