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Sheriff Tiraspol completes one of the biggest upheavals in football history

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By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

In the eastern parts of Europe, there are a handful of hidden nations which, depending on who you speak to, don’t really exist.

There is Abkhazia, a small breakaway republic whose border is a short walk from the media village site for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

There is South Ossetia, which claims independence from the Republic of Georgia, and there is Nagorno-Karabakh, which proclaims itself separate from Azerbaijan, although both have no official status with the United Nations, no place in American foreign policy and a position of invisibility on internet maps.

Typically, the only times you hear of such places are in times of political or real conflict or in quirky stories detailing how their ultra-rare postage stamps or banknotes became collector’s items among enthusiasts.

That changed this week. Because among the small group of disputed enclaves in Europe is Transnistria (otherwise known as Trans-Dniester), a strip of land that is geographically part of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, which is officially classified as the poorest country in Europe.

And in one of the biggest shocks in football history, the Transnistrian Sheriff Tiraspol somehow traveled to Real Madrid’s famous Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday and surprised the hosts with an upset victory.

No, you didn’t read it wrong. A team from a region that lacks official recognition and has limited basic infrastructure, which even football nerds had barely heard of, visited the home of arguably the biggest football club in the world and walked away. went with a 2-1 triumph.

It was not an exhibition match. It was Real’s first home game in the Champions League group stage this season, a competition they’ve won 13 times, more than any other club.

It wasn’t even a fluke, in particular. Despite a +2500 odds, Sheriff held his own, weathered Madrid’s offensive storm and took the win with a thunderous last-minute strike from Luxembourg midfielder Sébastien Thill.

“It’s the best and most important goal of my career, for sure,” Thill told reporters. “We’re so happy. We played a really good game. The team were so brave with the way we played, and luckily I was able to score a little more.”

There are so many parts to the Sheriff’s story that we can’t hope to cover them all, but one of the craziest was that the hero was Thill, who played most of his career in Luxembourg’s Little League. but dreamed big enough that he got a Champions League tattoo of himself on his leg. How is it to speak – or engrave – something in existence?

The Sheriff’s victory thrilled football fans the world over, who revel in the rare occasions when the biggest and meanest teams are toppled in a way that defies belief. It also led to the inevitable question of who – or who – is Sheriff Tiraspol, and how the hell was that possible?

The answer, in truth, is perhaps even more unusual than Tuesday’s result, which sees Sheriff placing ahead of Real and Italian Inter Milan, as well as Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, atop League Group D. champions.

Transnistria covers only 1,600 square miles and has a population of less than half a million. Most of the buildings date from the era of the Soviet Union.

“Transnistria, in particular, is a smuggler’s paradise,” Eastern European political scientist Thomas de Waal wrote on Carnegie Europe.

Strongly dominant in all aspects of life in the region is a business conglomerate that also has local political power: the Sheriff Group. The sheriff has a hand in everything from food and gas production to the financial sector, according to reports, and was founded by two former KGB agents.

These men, Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, loved football and used part of the sheriff’s vast fund base to try and make the home team a power. Sheriff Tiraspol plays in the Moldovan league, where most of the teams play on rented pitches in poor condition. The Sheriff’s Stadium cost $ 200 million and is state of the art.

“Champions League debutants have been playing in Moldova football league since 1999” wrote Robert O’Connor of the BBC. “They are kings reigning in peasant land. The annual turnover of the Sheriff Company is almost double the state budget and funds the club directly from its vast reserves of wealth. The rest of Moldovan football is impoverished in comparison. “

This creates a strange paradox. Football fans exasperated by the Super League’s proposals earlier this year which aimed to create a closed circle of Europe’s richest sides celebrated the result against Madrid as proof that the little guy should always have a chance .

The other side of the equation is that the money and recognition Sheriff gets from this season’s Champions League run will only strengthen his complete stranglehold on the Moldovan league.

It is not easy to attract leading players to Moldova, let alone a disputed territory within its official borders. The sheriff’s approach has been to recruit promising players from African and South American countries and then sell them to bigger teams for a profit. So far, these attempts have been blocked as few Western European clubs were willing to shell out large sums to buy players whose only testing ground was in Moldova.

Tuesday night will change all that. Even before the victory in Spain, Sheriff had survived four Champions League qualifying rounds just to advance to the group stage, and his players now have considerable and recognized work with which to prove their worth.

Thill, for example, is one of the many Sheriff’s players who could be dumped for some serious cash at the end of the season.

It’s for a little later. With four group matches remaining, Sheriff incredibly has a legitimate chance to advance to the Champions League knockout stage and earn a place among the continent’s top 16 clubs.

It was a hell of a ride. A few months ago, when the team reached the group stage, many players had tears in their eyes. “I think this is not the last of our accomplishments,” Sheriff coach Yuri Vernydub said at the time.

He wasn’t wrong, but even he probably couldn’t have predicted what happened on Tuesday – because no one could.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.


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