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No place like home

Tiraspol seemed an unlikely new stop on the Champions League circuit, but local side FC Sheriff have made themselves very much at home in their first season on club football’s biggest stage

WORDS Michael Harrold | PHOTOGRAPHY Alexander Hassenstein

A bust of Lenin sits high on a plinth outside the House of Soviets building in the centre of Tiraspol. He looks out across 25 October Street, named to commemorate the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He is looking into the distance, to a bright socialist future. 

These days that gaze falls on the Hotel Russia across the street. Like much of Tiraspol it is owned by local business empire Sheriff, whose influence is now as prominent as the hammer-and-sickle reminders of the city’s Soviet past. To the outside world, that is because of the extraordinary success of its football team, FC Sheriff, who – on the evening I’m in town – are set to play the biggest game of their short, 24-year history.

Real Madrid are the visitors, the 13-time European champions looking for revenge after sensationally losing 2-1 to the first-timers at the Santiago Bernabéu in September. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the competition, the heroics of goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis keeping Sheriff in the game long enough for Sébastien Thill to half-volley home a brilliant 90th-minute winner. 

It has been a long journey. Sheriff’s Champions League campaign kicked off on 7 July with a 4-0 win against Albanian side Teuta in front of 500 people in the first qualifying round. They played eight matches just to reach the group stage for the first time, knocking out 1991/92 European champions Crvena zvezda along the way. “I’m proud and happy for Sheriff, the players and the president that we’ve given this present to the city of Tiraspol, our fans,” coach Yuriy Vernydub said. For a population of 130,000 people, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing. 

Madrid are staying at the Hotel Russia and one Sheriff fan – wearing the obligatory half-and-half scarf – is already outside early on the morning of the match. He too, it seems, needs to see with his own eyes that Los Merengues are indeed in Tiraspol.

The main stadium on the 40-hectare Sheriff site on the city outskirts (above), city scenes (top right), A statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace (right)

I’m at the hotel to meet up with Anton Dendemarchenko, an artist and raconteur – and my guide for the morning. He takes me across the street to the library, which seems an unexpected place to begin a tour of the city. But this quiet and peaceful building is home to a propaganda mosaic from the Soviet era that opens a window on Moldova’s past. 

The focal point is a woman in gold, representing the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and radiating energy, light and heat. Around her people dance or happily work the fertile fields, as birds fly overhead. Nature is bountiful. She is calling on people in the Soviet Union to join her in this idyllic land. 

Reality tells a different story, and with Perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening up of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, most of Moldova was ready to shed its Soviet past and look to the West. The Russian-speaking majority in Tiraspol and the surrounding area continued to look resolutely east.

A brief civil war ensued to leave Moldova divided, with a new territory, unrecognised by the world, on its eastern border with Ukraine. Transnistria is a narrow strip of land, some 400km long, running along the banks of the Dniester River, which serves as a de facto boundary with Moldova. Transnistria means ‘spanning the Dniester’ but, as Anton points out, the local name Pridnestrovia – ‘near the Dniester’ – is more accurate, as most of the territory lies to its east.

Pridnestrovia has its own government, flag (complete with hammer and sickle) and currency, but officially it doesn’t exist. Its citizens have their own passports, but they can’t be used to travel. Russian is the dominant language. Many Soviet satellite states were quick to shed their links to the past during Perestroika and statues were torn down. In Pridnestrovia they remain a potent symbol of Communism, even if here too the free market now holds sway. 

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing.

We hop on an electric trolley bus towards Suvorov Square, passing Sheriff’s headquarters on the way. This huge open space is named after the city’s founder, Russian general Alexander Suvorov. Another imposing statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace. We meet up with a couple of Madrid fans, part of a contingent of 60 or so who have travelled to the game. They are having their photo taken alongside a Soviet tank that saw action in the Second World War. A Spanish TV reporter asks Anton about his homeland. “We’re not recognised by anyone,” he says. “They call us the country that doesn’t exist.” 

Next stop is the CCCP Canteen, a restaurant decked out in Soviet paraphernalia on Lenin Street and housed in the old cellars under the militia headquarters. I order Borscht – a delicious beetroot soup – and chicken with bulgur wheat. Shelves are crammed full of old telephones, televisions, hats and other artefacts; Soviet banners cover the walls. As we eat we watch an old Russian slapstick comedy that Anton has put on the TV at the end of the room, extolling the virtues of hard work.

Anton is rung frequently by visiting fans desperate for tickets. The game sold out in an hour, he tells me, and I am fortunate to have one. Sheriff Stadium is part of an enormous complex on the outskirts of town on the main road to the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. Built over 40 hectares, it boasts the main 13,000-seat stadium, a smaller 8,000-seat ground for the academy, plus an indoor arena, hotel and training pitches. There are Sheriff supermarkets and petrol stations seemingly on every corner. 

Sheriff have won 19 of the past 21 Moldovan titles; they are used to winning here. But there is no repeat of their Bernabéu heroics. Madrid win 3-0 as midfield trio Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos impose a stranglehold on the game. Covid restrictions mean the stadium is not at its 13,000 capacity, but still the chants of Sheriff are loud and proud. That pinch-me feeling remains. Beside me Yuri, who has travelled the 80km from Chișinău, squeezes my arm and points to the Madrid bench. “Carlo Ancelotti,” he says as the Italian gets to his feet to issue instructions. “My favourite coach.” 

After Kroos scores Madrid’s second, a young child runs onto the pitch and asks Karim Benzema for his autograph; the Frenchman puts his arm round him and obliges. He then puts the result beyond doubt by scoring Madrid’s third goal, ten minutes after the break. There are eight different nationalities in the Sheriff starting XI, with a heavily South American flavour, but the first Moldovan does not make an appearance until Mali winger Adama Traoré makes way for Maxim Cojocaru with nine minutes left. 

If the scoreline is disappointing for home fans, there is still reason to cheer. Shakhtar’s loss to Inter in the night’s other Group D game means Sheriff are guaranteed a place in the Europa League knockout stage. Their fairytale Champions League run may be coming to an end, but for Tiraspol and its football team, the European adventure continues. 

A bust of Lenin sits high on a plinth outside the House of Soviets building in the centre of Tiraspol. He looks out across 25 October Street, named to commemorate the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He is looking into the distance, to a bright socialist future. 

These days that gaze falls on the Hotel Russia across the street. Like much of Tiraspol it is owned by local business empire Sheriff, whose influence is now as prominent as the hammer-and-sickle reminders of the city’s Soviet past. To the outside world, that is because of the extraordinary success of its football team, FC Sheriff, who – on the evening I’m in town – are set to play the biggest game of their short, 24-year history.

Real Madrid are the visitors, the 13-time European champions looking for revenge after sensationally losing 2-1 to the first-timers at the Santiago Bernabéu in September. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the competition, the heroics of goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis keeping Sheriff in the game long enough for Sébastien Thill to half-volley home a brilliant 90th-minute winner. 

It has been a long journey. Sheriff’s Champions League campaign kicked off on 7 July with a 4-0 win against Albanian side Teuta in front of 500 people in the first qualifying round. They played eight matches just to reach the group stage for the first time, knocking out 1991/92 European champions Crvena zvezda along the way. “I’m proud and happy for Sheriff, the players and the president that we’ve given this present to the city of Tiraspol, our fans,” coach Yuriy Vernydub said. For a population of 130,000 people, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing. 

Madrid are staying at the Hotel Russia and one Sheriff fan – wearing the obligatory half-and-half scarf – is already outside early on the morning of the match. He too, it seems, needs to see with his own eyes that Los Merengues are indeed in Tiraspol.

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The main stadium on the 40-hectare Sheriff site on the city outskirts (above), city scenes (top right), A statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace (right)

I’m at the hotel to meet up with Anton Dendemarchenko, an artist and raconteur – and my guide for the morning. He takes me across the street to the library, which seems an unexpected place to begin a tour of the city. But this quiet and peaceful building is home to a propaganda mosaic from the Soviet era that opens a window on Moldova’s past. 

The focal point is a woman in gold, representing the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and radiating energy, light and heat. Around her people dance or happily work the fertile fields, as birds fly overhead. Nature is bountiful. She is calling on people in the Soviet Union to join her in this idyllic land. 

Reality tells a different story, and with Perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening up of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, most of Moldova was ready to shed its Soviet past and look to the West. The Russian-speaking majority in Tiraspol and the surrounding area continued to look resolutely east.

A brief civil war ensued to leave Moldova divided, with a new territory, unrecognised by the world, on its eastern border with Ukraine. Transnistria is a narrow strip of land, some 400km long, running along the banks of the Dniester River, which serves as a de facto boundary with Moldova. Transnistria means ‘spanning the Dniester’ but, as Anton points out, the local name Pridnestrovia – ‘near the Dniester’ – is more accurate, as most of the territory lies to its east.

Pridnestrovia has its own government, flag (complete with hammer and sickle) and currency, but officially it doesn’t exist. Its citizens have their own passports, but they can’t be used to travel. Russian is the dominant language. Many Soviet satellite states were quick to shed their links to the past during Perestroika and statues were torn down. In Pridnestrovia they remain a potent symbol of Communism, even if here too the free market now holds sway. 

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing.

We hop on an electric trolley bus towards Suvorov Square, passing Sheriff’s headquarters on the way. This huge open space is named after the city’s founder, Russian general Alexander Suvorov. Another imposing statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace. We meet up with a couple of Madrid fans, part of a contingent of 60 or so who have travelled to the game. They are having their photo taken alongside a Soviet tank that saw action in the Second World War. A Spanish TV reporter asks Anton about his homeland. “We’re not recognised by anyone,” he says. “They call us the country that doesn’t exist.” 

Next stop is the CCCP Canteen, a restaurant decked out in Soviet paraphernalia on Lenin Street and housed in the old cellars under the militia headquarters. I order Borscht – a delicious beetroot soup – and chicken with bulgur wheat. Shelves are crammed full of old telephones, televisions, hats and other artefacts; Soviet banners cover the walls. As we eat we watch an old Russian slapstick comedy that Anton has put on the TV at the end of the room, extolling the virtues of hard work.

Anton is rung frequently by visiting fans desperate for tickets. The game sold out in an hour, he tells me, and I am fortunate to have one. Sheriff Stadium is part of an enormous complex on the outskirts of town on the main road to the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. Built over 40 hectares, it boasts the main 13,000-seat stadium, a smaller 8,000-seat ground for the academy, plus an indoor arena, hotel and training pitches. There are Sheriff supermarkets and petrol stations seemingly on every corner. 

Sheriff have won 19 of the past 21 Moldovan titles; they are used to winning here. But there is no repeat of their Bernabéu heroics. Madrid win 3-0 as midfield trio Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos impose a stranglehold on the game. Covid restrictions mean the stadium is not at its 13,000 capacity, but still the chants of Sheriff are loud and proud. That pinch-me feeling remains. Beside me Yuri, who has travelled the 80km from Chișinău, squeezes my arm and points to the Madrid bench. “Carlo Ancelotti,” he says as the Italian gets to his feet to issue instructions. “My favourite coach.” 

After Kroos scores Madrid’s second, a young child runs onto the pitch and asks Karim Benzema for his autograph; the Frenchman puts his arm round him and obliges. He then puts the result beyond doubt by scoring Madrid’s third goal, ten minutes after the break. There are eight different nationalities in the Sheriff starting XI, with a heavily South American flavour, but the first Moldovan does not make an appearance until Mali winger Adama Traoré makes way for Maxim Cojocaru with nine minutes left. 

If the scoreline is disappointing for home fans, there is still reason to cheer. Shakhtar’s loss to Inter in the night’s other Group D game means Sheriff are guaranteed a place in the Europa League knockout stage. Their fairytale Champions League run may be coming to an end, but for Tiraspol and its football team, the European adventure continues. 

A bust of Lenin sits high on a plinth outside the House of Soviets building in the centre of Tiraspol. He looks out across 25 October Street, named to commemorate the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He is looking into the distance, to a bright socialist future. 

These days that gaze falls on the Hotel Russia across the street. Like much of Tiraspol it is owned by local business empire Sheriff, whose influence is now as prominent as the hammer-and-sickle reminders of the city’s Soviet past. To the outside world, that is because of the extraordinary success of its football team, FC Sheriff, who – on the evening I’m in town – are set to play the biggest game of their short, 24-year history.

Real Madrid are the visitors, the 13-time European champions looking for revenge after sensationally losing 2-1 to the first-timers at the Santiago Bernabéu in September. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the competition, the heroics of goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis keeping Sheriff in the game long enough for Sébastien Thill to half-volley home a brilliant 90th-minute winner. 

It has been a long journey. Sheriff’s Champions League campaign kicked off on 7 July with a 4-0 win against Albanian side Teuta in front of 500 people in the first qualifying round. They played eight matches just to reach the group stage for the first time, knocking out 1991/92 European champions Crvena zvezda along the way. “I’m proud and happy for Sheriff, the players and the president that we’ve given this present to the city of Tiraspol, our fans,” coach Yuriy Vernydub said. For a population of 130,000 people, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing. 

Madrid are staying at the Hotel Russia and one Sheriff fan – wearing the obligatory half-and-half scarf – is already outside early on the morning of the match. He too, it seems, needs to see with his own eyes that Los Merengues are indeed in Tiraspol.

The main stadium on the 40-hectare Sheriff site on the city outskirts (above), city scenes (top right), A statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace (right)

I’m at the hotel to meet up with Anton Dendemarchenko, an artist and raconteur – and my guide for the morning. He takes me across the street to the library, which seems an unexpected place to begin a tour of the city. But this quiet and peaceful building is home to a propaganda mosaic from the Soviet era that opens a window on Moldova’s past. 

The focal point is a woman in gold, representing the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and radiating energy, light and heat. Around her people dance or happily work the fertile fields, as birds fly overhead. Nature is bountiful. She is calling on people in the Soviet Union to join her in this idyllic land. 

Reality tells a different story, and with Perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening up of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, most of Moldova was ready to shed its Soviet past and look to the West. The Russian-speaking majority in Tiraspol and the surrounding area continued to look resolutely east.

A brief civil war ensued to leave Moldova divided, with a new territory, unrecognised by the world, on its eastern border with Ukraine. Transnistria is a narrow strip of land, some 400km long, running along the banks of the Dniester River, which serves as a de facto boundary with Moldova. Transnistria means ‘spanning the Dniester’ but, as Anton points out, the local name Pridnestrovia – ‘near the Dniester’ – is more accurate, as most of the territory lies to its east.

Pridnestrovia has its own government, flag (complete with hammer and sickle) and currency, but officially it doesn’t exist. Its citizens have their own passports, but they can’t be used to travel. Russian is the dominant language. Many Soviet satellite states were quick to shed their links to the past during Perestroika and statues were torn down. In Pridnestrovia they remain a potent symbol of Communism, even if here too the free market now holds sway. 

Thill is the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League. On his left calf he has a tattoo of himself with the trophy in a thought bubble, dreaming of one day playing in the competition. Perhaps that’s why he has since watched his goal “over 100 times”. Seeing is believing.

We hop on an electric trolley bus towards Suvorov Square, passing Sheriff’s headquarters on the way. This huge open space is named after the city’s founder, Russian general Alexander Suvorov. Another imposing statue of Lenin stands outside the Presidential Palace. We meet up with a couple of Madrid fans, part of a contingent of 60 or so who have travelled to the game. They are having their photo taken alongside a Soviet tank that saw action in the Second World War. A Spanish TV reporter asks Anton about his homeland. “We’re not recognised by anyone,” he says. “They call us the country that doesn’t exist.” 

Next stop is the CCCP Canteen, a restaurant decked out in Soviet paraphernalia on Lenin Street and housed in the old cellars under the militia headquarters. I order Borscht – a delicious beetroot soup – and chicken with bulgur wheat. Shelves are crammed full of old telephones, televisions, hats and other artefacts; Soviet banners cover the walls. As we eat we watch an old Russian slapstick comedy that Anton has put on the TV at the end of the room, extolling the virtues of hard work.

Anton is rung frequently by visiting fans desperate for tickets. The game sold out in an hour, he tells me, and I am fortunate to have one. Sheriff Stadium is part of an enormous complex on the outskirts of town on the main road to the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. Built over 40 hectares, it boasts the main 13,000-seat stadium, a smaller 8,000-seat ground for the academy, plus an indoor arena, hotel and training pitches. There are Sheriff supermarkets and petrol stations seemingly on every corner. 

Sheriff have won 19 of the past 21 Moldovan titles; they are used to winning here. But there is no repeat of their Bernabéu heroics. Madrid win 3-0 as midfield trio Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos impose a stranglehold on the game. Covid restrictions mean the stadium is not at its 13,000 capacity, but still the chants of Sheriff are loud and proud. That pinch-me feeling remains. Beside me Yuri, who has travelled the 80km from Chișinău, squeezes my arm and points to the Madrid bench. “Carlo Ancelotti,” he says as the Italian gets to his feet to issue instructions. “My favourite coach.” 

After Kroos scores Madrid’s second, a young child runs onto the pitch and asks Karim Benzema for his autograph; the Frenchman puts his arm round him and obliges. He then puts the result beyond doubt by scoring Madrid’s third goal, ten minutes after the break. There are eight different nationalities in the Sheriff starting XI, with a heavily South American flavour, but the first Moldovan does not make an appearance until Mali winger Adama Traoré makes way for Maxim Cojocaru with nine minutes left. 

If the scoreline is disappointing for home fans, there is still reason to cheer. Shakhtar’s loss to Inter in the night’s other Group D game means Sheriff are guaranteed a place in the Europa League knockout stage. Their fairytale Champions League run may be coming to an end, but for Tiraspol and its football team, the European adventure continues. 

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