MADRID — When Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol qualified for the elite Champions League, becoming the first side from that country to do so, pundits were scratching their heads and asking 'who?'.
Then, when they were drawn in a group with Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk, it was thought by pundits to be a case of how many goals they would lose by.
However, against all the odds, Sheriff sit top of Group D with a maximum six points having pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in Champions League history when they stunned Real 2-1 at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.
But just who is the new Sheriff in town?
The story of Sheriff football club is crazy, was founded by 2 ex KGB agents. They are from Transnistria which doesn't officially exist. They give a sword to the opposition as a gift. This vs Partizan in UCL is an example. pic.twitter.com/L0AcaliJ0y— LFC Views (@Mobyhaque1) September 28, 2021
An unrecognised state
Sheriff Tiraspol is based in the eastern European country of Moldova, a nation of 3.5 million people and one of Europe's poorest. They play in the Moldovan league but the city considers itself the capital of Transdniestria, a breakaway state tucked between the eastern bank of the Dniester river and Ukraine.
The Russian-speakers of Transdniestria nominally seceded from Moldova in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fearing the country might shortly merge with Romania, whose language and culture it broadly shares.
The separatist region fought a brief war with Moldova in 1992 and declared itself an independent state, though it remains unrecognised by any country, including Russia.
It has its own flag, number plates, passports and currency, the Transdniestrian rouble. To some, the region can resemble a time capsule of Soviet rule - a hammer and sickle adorn its flag and a large statue of Lenin stands outside the parliament.
Russian troops are still based in the region despite calls by the Moldovan government for their withdrawal.
The population of the region is 450,000 people, though many have gone to work abroad in countries such as Russia, Israel and Turkey. Approximately 200,000 people are citizens of Russia, 120,000 are citizens of Ukraine, 240,000 are citizens of Moldova, and there are also citizens of Bulgaria and Romania.
Sheriff Tiraspol owners
The team is owned and takes its name from the Sheriff company. A corporation formed in the early 1990s by Victor Gussn and Ilia Kazmali, two former Soviet police officers, the company dominates the business landscape in Transdniestria, from petrol stations, a mobile phone network, banking and the production of a popular brandy.
FC Sheriff Tirsaspol are the first Moldovan team to reach the #UCL group stage.They sit ABOVE 13-time champs, Real Madrid, heading into MD 2.
But who are they? @oeste takes a look into the team created by an all-powerful company run by two former KGB agent. pic.twitter.com/ihaxNj1v3L
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) September 28, 2021
Sheriff have dominated the Moldovan top division, winning nine of the last 10 titles. They currently sit third in the league with 19 points from eight games, eight points behind league leaders Milsami but with three games in hand.
The Moldovan league relies mainly on local players but Sheriff Tiraspol is an exception. They contain players from countries including Colombia, Ghana, Nigeria, Peru, Brazil, Greece and Uzbekistan.
There is also one player from Luxembourg — midfielder Sebastien Thill — who is on loan from Progres Niederkorn and scored the 90th minute stunner to win the game at Real Madrid.
However, perhaps their most important import has been coach Yuriy Vernydub from Ukraine. He got them into the Champions League and has masterminded their perfect start to the competition.
(Reporting by Joseph Walker, Matthias Williams and Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ken Ferris)