Every now and then, the football gods like to remind us why we love this game so much. And in recent times, the Champions League has thrown up some great examples of classic encounters, whether it be Tottenham eliminating Ajax in the last seconds or Liverpool managing the king of all comebacks against Barcelona. Despite all of FIFA’s best efforts to eliminate surprise and shock from the competition with the introduction of seedings, groups and eliminating the away goal rule, great storylines still occur. Adding to that list of historic moments, we can now include Sheriff Tiraspol’s incredible 2-1 defeat of the mighty Real Madrid, 13 times European Champions, in the Bernabeu.
Now, to be fair to Real Madrid, it was one of those nights when it just seemed that everything went against them. On another day, with the number of changes that Real created, it could have been a landslide. Real Madrid had 30 shots on goal, 11 on target, 13 corners and 67% of the possession – and yet their only goal came from a penalty that needed a close inspection on VAR to determine. Sheriff meanwhile had 3 shots on target and not a single corner – yet those three shots on goal yielded two goals – a header from Jasurbek Yakhshiboev and an 89th-minute screamer from Sebastien Thill, the first player from tiny Luxembourg to score a Champions League goal. One can discuss “ifs and buts” all day – all everyone will really remember is that Sheriff Tiraspol came to Madrid and walked away with a historic victory. Of course, there is also the inevitable storyline of Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez and his push for a European Super League – a possible example of the football gods inflicting justice for his hubris.
So it is likely that when you are having a drink with friends in the pub or getting changed for a five-a-side game, someone is going to pipe up with “how about that Sheriff team beating Real Madrid…I mean, I don’t even know who they are! I couldn’t find Tiraspol on a map if I tried.” So who exactly are they, where are they from and how did they even get to this position of playing the mighty Real Madrid? Let’s try to answer some of those questions so you can impress your friends with your knowledge of obscure European teams and earn their admiring looks.
Let us begin with where Tiraspol actually is – and it gets pretty interesting almost immediately. The first thing to know is that Tiraspol is the capital city of Transnistria, which sounds like something out of a Disney fairy-tale or a bad soap opera. Just go and try to find Transnistria on a map – you may be struggling. But exist it does.
Firstly find Moldova – it will be a small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, whose capital city is Chisinau. It used to be part of the USSR until the dissolution of the Soviet Union whereby it declared independence in 1991. Shortly after, it received official recognition as an independent state at the United Nations. Moldova ranks as the second poorest country in Europe by GDP per capita.
Closer inspection of the country shows that a number of rivers flow through it from north to south, eventually emptying into the Black Sea. The most significant of those is the Dniester in the far east of the country, near to the border with Ukraine. There exists therefore a slither of
land that sits between the Dniester and the Ukrainian border, which consists of inhabitants of predominantly Russian and Ukrainian descent. It is this area that declared itself as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990, with its capital based in Tiraspol, basically a self-declared breakaway state. It is more commonly known however as Transnistria. This breakaway has caused violent clashes in the past and so is now managed by a three-way peacekeeping force of Russian, Transnistrian and Moldovan personnel. It is unrecognized by the international community.
While not officially recognised, Transnistria uses its own currency, the Trans-Dniestrian rouble, which cannot be exchanged anywhere else in the world. It, unfortunately, has a reputation for organized crime, smuggling and corruption. Tiraspol itself still clings to its Russian roots, existing almost frozen in time within the communist era. Russian is the predominantly spoken language and buildings still display the old hammer and sickle, as well as the national flag, while a huge statue of Lenin remains outside the parliament building. Transnistria also has a national football team but again without receiving recognition from either FIFA or UEFA.
Now that we understand where Tiraspol is, let’s turn to look at Sheriff Tiraspol itself. Transnistria’s capital has two football teams – Sheriff Tiraspol and FC Tiraspol – which while part of Transnistria do play in the Moldovan league. Sheriff Tiraspol is by far the more successful of the two and has dominated Moldovan football in recent times. In line with Moldovia only coming into existence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Sheriff has only been in existence since 1997, yet won the Moldovan double in 2001, the first of 20 titles in 22 years.
Its name and success come from sponsorship by the Sheriff company, formed by two former KGB officers, which operates a host of industries in Transnistria, and it is their backing that ensures that Sheriff Tiraspol has hugely more financial clout than any other Moldovan team. The Sheriff company also has close ties to the local government which is protected and funded by Russia and have provided Sheriff Tiraspol with the only country’s only modern stadium, which holds 12,746 fans. No other Moldovan team even owns its own ground. So within Moldova, Sheriff Tiraspol has unparalleled advantages over any rivals and have therefore dominated to a ridiculous degree.
Following each of their many league titles, Sheriff earned the right to compete in the Champions League as the Moldovan representatives. For eight seasons in a row from 2002 to 2009, they were eliminated in the second qualifying round. 2010 and 2011 did see them reach the play-off round, the final step ahead of the valuable group stage, but they fell to Olympiacos and Basel respectively. Then began another run of second and third qualifying round eliminations. It appeared that a Moldovan team would never be able to reach the holy grail of the group stage. But all that finally changed in the current edition.
Going into this year’s competition, Sheriff is managed by Ukrainian Yuriy Vernydub, who took the role in December 2020 and then led them to the Moldovan championship. His previous experience consisted of managing the Ukrainian team Zorya Luhansk for several years, who
played Manchester United in the 2016-17 Europa League. Key players include goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis, on loan from AEK Athens, and striker Adama Traore (no relation of the Wolves winger of the same name), signed from Metz earlier this year and a Mali international. In total, ten new players have been added over the previous 12 months. The squad hails from a range of countries including Ghana, Brazil, Malawi, Uzbekistan, Luxembourg and Peru. Interestingly, however, no member of the starting Sheriff eleven against Real Madrid was in fact Moldovan – although also interestingly, no member of the Real Madrid final eleven at full-time was Spanish either.
So how did Sheriff Tiraspol end up playing at the Bernabeu? Well, back in July, the first qualifying round of the Champions League was played. Amongst the 16 ties, Sheriff was drawn against Albanian champions Teuta. The first leg saw Sheriff travel to Albania and come away with a 4-0 victory, almost ensuring progress to the second round which was confirmed by a 1-0 home victory. And so on to Sheriff’s nemesis – the second qualifying round.
The second qualifying round threw up a trip to Armenia for Sheriff, travelling to its capital Yerevan to face FC Alashkert, winners of the Armenian Premier League. As in the first round, Sheriff came away with an away win – this time 1-0 – which was then consolidated with a 3-1 home win. Sheriff were moving on to the third qualifying round.
The third qualifying round contained some serious competition, with the likes of Malmo, Rangers, Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb. When the draw was complete, Sheriff was looking at two legs against one-time European champions Red Star Belgrade. For the third successive time, Sheriff played the away leg first, travelling to Serbia in early August. In front of 24,000 rabid Red Star fans, Sheriff took the lead from a Castaneda free-kick after 33 minutes. Red Star equalised in added first half time but Sheriff then held on through the second half to come away with a credible draw. A week later, in front of just 4,950 home fans, Arboleda scored off another Castaneda free-kick just before half-time and that was enough to send Sheriff to within touching distance of the promised land. Twelve teams competing for six spots in the converted group stages of the Champions League. Two games away from the big time.
Sheriff was then pitted against Dinamo Zagreb, Croatia’s dominant league team. This time would see Sheriff play at home first and so on August 17, 5,281 fans showed up to see if the impossible dream could occur. On a warm night, Sheriff blew Zagreb away, putting on a fine first-half display – rewarded with an opening Adama Traore goal – followed by an exceptional second-half rampage. Kolovos’s volley was superb and almost unstoppable, then Traore terrorised Dinamo’s defence yet again, producing a cool finish for a third. Coach Vernydub dropped to his knees at the final whistle as Sheriff were now favourites to become Moldova’s first ever team to reach the Champions League group stage.
As expected, Dinamo Zagreb came out with all guns blazing in the second leg needing to overcome their significant deficit. But an inspired display by the man of the match Sheriff goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis saw Sheriff hold Zagreb at bay and come away with a goalless draw. Sheriff had done it – Moldova had its first ever representative in the group stages.
26 August saw the group stage draw made. Sheriff Tiraspol was the lowest-rated team amongst the 32 teams, just ahead of VfL Wolfsburg. Not surprisingly, this placed them into pot 4. Group 4 started to develop, with Inter first out from pot 1 followed by Real Madrid from pot 2. Between them, both teams have won the European Cup/Champions League an impressive 16 times. Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk came next and then finally Sheriff saw themselves added to the mix. 12 games which will see two teams move on the knockout stage. The group has Inter and Real Madrid written all over it.
But the first two sets of games have shown that reputation is no guarantee of success. On September 15, Sheriff hosted Ukrainian neighbours Shakhtar to begin their group stage odyssey. Their tiny stadium saw 5,205 fans watch a slice of history. After 15 mins, a cross from Cristiano was superbly volleyed in by who else but Adama Traore. Just to add confusion, Shakhtar also fielded a player by the name of Lassina Traore, whose shot after 30 minutes was well saved by Athanasiadis. Shakhtar continued to press and dominate possession but the Sheriff defence held firm. Then, against the run of play, yet another cross from Cristiano after 62 minutes found an unmarked Momo Yansane, who had just come off the bench, and he buried the header for 2-0, before being mobbed in jubilant scenes. And so the game ended, with Cristiano deservedly named man of the match for his two goals assists. With Real Madrid winning 1-0 in Milan, Sheriff was top of the group after just one game.
Of course, that was all supposed to be temporary. Of course, with Sheriff travelling to Madrid next, normal service was expected to resume and Sheriff would find out what group stage football was really all about. But it wasn’t to be. And so, after two games each, Sheriff proudly sit top of their group, with a maximum of 6 points, 3 points ahead of Real in second and 4 points ahead of Inter in third.
All eyes will now turn to October 19 when Sheriff travel to the fabled San Siro to take on Inter. They couldn’t get back to back wins in both the Bernabeu and San Siro, could they? Well, if they can, then they would really fancy their chances of sitting in the top two come early December. Stranger things have happened in football. But whatever fate awaits them over their next four games, the night that they felled the 13 times European champions in their own backyard will live on in the memory of a whole generation.
Sheriff Tiraspol – thank you for showing that football is more than just mooted Super Leagues and money.