FC Sheriff Tiraspol, a football club from a pro-Russian separatist enclave of Europe’s poorest country, Moldova, has pulled off one of the biggest shocks in Champions League history by beating Spanish giants Real Madrid.
“We came here to win,” Frank Castaneda, the Sheriff captain, told AFP news agency after his side’s 2-1 victory at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium.
The estimated value of the entire Sheriff squad is 12 million euros ($14m), about the same as the annual salary of Madrid defender David Alaba
“We didn’t just come here to sit around. We know how good our players are and luckily for us, Madrid weren’t able to take their chances – and we took ours,” Castaneda said.
For Sheriff, this was only a second match in the Champions League group stage.
Real dominated but Sheriff scored two excellent goals and had a third disallowed for offside, and now have six points out of six.
Sebastien Thill, who has a tattoo of himself dreaming of playing in the Champions League, smashed in the winner in the 89th minute.
“It’s the best and most important goal of my career, that’s for sure,” Thill said.
“The side were so brave with how we played and luckily enough I was able to score a bit of a stunner.”
With all the talk – now abandoned – of a breakaway European Super League for the elite, the minnows from the Moldovan league gave a timely reminder of the appeal of open competition.
The club is owned by a conglomerate, called Sheriff, which effectively runs the pro-Russian separatist state of Transnistria, where the football club is based.
The little-known Transnistria region, of which Tiraspol is the capital, broke away from Moldova in a short civil war in the early 1990s. Russian-backed forces fought a separatist war that killed close to 1,000 people and resulted in the land east of Moldova’s Dniester river forming a self-declared new state.
Transnistria, also referred to as Trans Dniester, remains unrecognised by the international community. Under international law, it belongs to the Republic of Moldova, which was formed in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing.
The territory has a reputation for corruption, organised crime and smuggling and is effectively run by the Sheriff holding company.
Sporting a five-pointed sheriff’s star as its logo, FC Sheriff Tiraspol takes the name from the eponymous company.
The holding company is owned by a former Soviet police officer, Viktor Gushan, who controls businesses ranging from a cognac distillery and caviar farm to supermarket and gas station chains.
“Viktor Gushan is the person with the most influence here, both in politics and economics,” said Anatoly Dirun, director of the Tiraspol School of Political Studies, told AFP.
Dirun, a former member of the ruling Renewal party financed by Sheriff, said Gushan’s people also hold all of the main leadership posts in the breakaway region, from Parliament to the prime minister’s seat to the presidency.
The company founded FC Sheriff in 1997. No club from the Moldovan league had ever qualified for the group stage of the Champions League.
For Sheriff, up next in the Champions League are Inter Milan, with qualification now very achievable in Group D, where they sit top – but the club is not getting carried away.
“We aren’t thinking about the last 16 yet as we still haven’t done anything extraordinary, we’re just going forward step by step,” said Sheriff coach Yuriy Vernydub.