Premium/Free to Read: The Craziest Sports Story of the Year Is FC Sheriff
Real Madrid-Slaying Champions League Underdog. Money-Laundering Front for Arms Smugglers. Pride of a Soviet-Style Country that Doesn't Exist. We Went There to Investigate.
TIRASPOL, Moldova — To find the vanquished Champions League-worn jersey of Real Madrid star David Alaba, you have to fly through Istanbul to Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, hire a driver for a 90-minute trip east on bumpy roads and show your passport at a grim customs station for a nation that doesn’t exist.
Continuing onward, and switching now from the Romanian language to Russian, from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic, you have to cross the Dniester River and pass still-honored statues of Lenin fronting brutalist Soviet-style buildings topped by the flags of Russia and unrecognized Transnistria (green and red; hammer and sickle)—or Pridnestrovie, as the locals call it.
Eventually you have to pass a Russian military base, which minds one of the world’s largest weapons dumps, in a 25-mile-wide disputed territory known for porous borders and spectacular amounts of smuggling (arms, cigarettes, anything else you could imagine) until you reach a dilapidated nine-floor apartment building on October 25th Street, Tiraspol’s main drag.
Keston Julien never thought he’d live in a place like this, where Western credit cards don’t work, cellphone service for visitors is spotty at best, and an unrecognized country has its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, that’s worthless everywhere else. “If you see any Black people here,” he says, “they’re football players.”
Then again, he never thought he’d be part of the craziest global sports story of 2021.
A 23-year-old left back from Trinidad and Tobago who plays for Tiraspol’s FC Sheriff, Julien welcomes you into his third-floor apartment, which is nicer on the inside than on the outside. Hanging like a hunting trophy on the living-room wall is Alaba’s game-worn Real Madrid shirt, which Alaba traded with Julien after Sheriff had done the unthinkable, beating the 13-time European champions 2-1 in a UEFA Champions League group-stage match at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on September 28.
Run by a former KGB agent turned oligarch, Viktor Gushan, who named it after the heroes of the movie Westerns he favors, Sheriff is more than a soccer team. It’s a business entity that owns everything that matters in Transnistria: the grocery stores, the gas stations, a casino, a TV channel, a telephone company, a winery, a reportedly vast smuggling network and Transnistria’s most opulent structures, a $200 million soccer stadium and 14-field training facility complex.
But despite that wealth and power, Sheriff, the first team from the Moldovan league to reach the Champions League group stage, doesn’t spend nearly as much on players as the elite teams it’s playing against. And while the club saves money by forbidding its players from trading away their uniform jerseys in domestic games, it makes an exception for high-profile Champions League matches. Julien, the first Trinidadian in 10 years to play in the Champions League, took full advantage of that with Alaba, one of his idols. “I still haven’t washed it yet,” Julien says with a smile.
In 25 years as a journalist, I had never encountered a sports team whose star players are infinitely easier to reach than the club press officer whose job is to connect with the media. Sheriff is the first. And so, within an hour of arriving in Tiraspol, five days before the Nov. 3 Champions League game against Italian champion Inter, I find myself meeting with a procession of Sheriff’s top players from a Champions League roster that represents 15 nations, including Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Luxembourg, Mali, Peru and Uzbekistan. (Yes, there are even a couple players from Moldova.)
Rugged center back Gustavo Dulanto, Sheriff’s 26-year-old Peruvian captain, meets me at the restaurant Kasta with his wife, Daniela, and their daughter, Rafaela, 4. “Thank you for coming to, as I tell my friends from Peru, the end of the world,” he says in Spanish with a laugh. Dulanto joined Sheriff in February from Portugal’s Boavista, but his strong play and outsized personality earned him the captaincy within months.
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“Not all of us handle English that well, but there’s good vibes in the dressing room, so we make ourselves understand each other in any way we can,” he explains. “It’s really funny, because we try to communicate in signs. The truth is that this is a large group with so many nationalities, so you end up learning their cultures. We also have different religions, so you’ll learn about that too. This is the beauty of soccer.”
Dulanto’s wife and daughter joined him in June, and they’re making the best of their living situation, with an apartment and car provided by the club. At least Netflix works, he says, even if their Disney+ subscription doesn’t, and Rafaela (who’s attending her Peruvian school online) will get her long-awaited wish during the December break when they visit Disneyland Paris.
Sheriff’s path through the 2021-22 Champions League has bordered on the miraculous. It had to play eight qualifying games, dispatching the champions of Serbia (Red Star Belgrade) and Croatia (Dinamo Zagreb) along the way just to reach the group stage. Then Sheriff beat Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 in the group-stage opener and pulled off the upset of the decade at Real Madrid. Sheriff has come back to earth with consecutive losses to Inter, but it’s still just one point behind Inter and three behind Real Madrid with two matchdays left. Sheriff hosts Real Madrid on Nov. 24 and travels to face Shakhtar in the group stage finale on Dec. 7.
The past three months have provided career-changing moments for Dulanto. “It will be something that will mark my whole life, winning against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu,” he says, but still he wants more, wants to advance to the Champions League knockout rounds, which Sheriff can do by finishing first or second in the group.
After the game in Madrid, a wiseguy reporter from El Chiringuito, Spain’s popular telenovela-style soccer TV show, cornered Dulanto and asked him if Sheriff’s players were all fully professional or had other jobs outside of soccer. “It was a pretty silly question,” Dulanto says. “It seemed disrespectful. But hey, anyone who watches that show knows they like those types of things. I was amused. The truth is we’re a team nobody knew, and we’re making a name for ourselves with all the performances we’ve had.”
Truth be told, El Chiringuito’s question wasn’t far off base. That becomes clear when I meet Sheriff’s breakout star, 27-year-old midfielder Sebastién Thill of Luxembourg, for lunch at Love Café, a cute French bistro on Lenin Street that serves delicious omelettes and macarons for dessert. Thill scored a golazo for the 90th-minute game-winner at Real Madrid and added a brilliant 35-yard equalizing free kick at Inter on October 19 before Sheriff ended up losing 3-1.
A relentless runner who idolizes former German star Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thill wears Schweini’s No. 31 and has devoted one of the tattoos telling his career story on his left leg to the 2014 World Cup winner. But while Thill comes from a soccer family—his parents, Serge and Natalie, and two younger brothers, Olivier and Vincent, have all played for the Luxembourg national team—it was only just more than a year ago that Sebastién wasn’t a fully professional player himself.
In fact, his side gig in Luxembourg was mowing the same playing field at Progres Niederkorn’s Jos Haupert Stadion that he would compete on when the weekend arrived. “I worked in the morning, and then in the afternoon I’d go to training,” Thill explains. “I worked on the pitch, so I’d know where to run, where the pitch is good and where it’s not.”
But when Thill saw his two brothers having success as full professionals playing outside Luxembourg, he decided to give it a go himself. “I didn’t want to finish my career and say, ‘I have some regrets,’” he says. “And so I had this chance to sign in Russia, and I decided to use my chance.”
After a successful half-season on loan at Russia’s Tambov, Thill joined Sheriff on a one-and-a-half-year loan in January. Not only has he scored massive goals in the soccer cathedrals of the Bernabéu and San Siro, but he has run more in this season’s Champions League group stage than any other player (49.1 km)—not bad for a guy who quit smoking only 15 months ago.
No matter what you may think about the people who own FC Sheriff, the story of its players in the Champions League is one of the most compelling underdog tales in sports.
“My teammates’ personalities are spectacular,” says Dulanto. “They have a courage that I had not seen much before, they’re hungry for glory, and that makes me improve every day. It’s like family, right? You always try to be with someone who makes you better every day. In my case, it’s my wife and daughter. And my teammates do the same. I would kill for them. That’s the truth.”
Before I left for Europe, I contacted a few people who’d had experience in Tiraspol. One of them was Slava Malamud, a Baltimore-based teacher and freelance sportswriter. Until his teenage years, Malamud lived in Soviet Moldova (in what is now Transnistria) in the city of Bender, a 10-minute drive from Tiraspol, where he spent much of his time in small, crumbling stadiums watching desultory lower-league soccer games.
As the Soviet Union was breaking up, he says, Bender was where much of the fighting took place in 1991 and ’92 between Romanian- and Russian-speaking Moldovans. “It was a war being fought, but for the stupidest of reasons: Should we or should we not learn the Romanian language?” Malamud says. “Basically that was the whole thing.” Malamud was 16, and when fighting factions started trying to recruit him, he decided to leave the country as a refugee for the United States.
Eventually, after 20 months of fighting, the sides reached a truce. Transnistria was technically still part of Moldova according to the international community, but it was separate in virtually every other way, with military forces tightly guarding the so-called borders.
“Transnistria was never recognized,” Malamud explains. “They received military help from Russia. In the ’90s, the Russians came in as quote-unquote peacekeepers, but in reality they just established this buffer state in order to keep Moldova from running too far away from the Russian sphere of influence. They wanted to keep Moldova from joining Romania. So Russia set up shop in Transnistria, and if Moldova tries anything we’re going to just annex this—like a trial run for what they did with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. And because Transnistria was never recognized by anyone, including by Russia, they were basically left to their own devices, meaning you survive every which way you can.”
More than anything, that meant smuggling. Transnistria’s lightly monitored eastern border with Ukraine allowed for easy and furtive access to and from the Black Sea port of Odessa, just 60 miles away, which opened up supply lines of contraband to Asia, Africa and the rest of Europe. And Transnistria was already home to the westernmost weapons depot for the former Soviet Army. Much of the arms cache had been phased out by the Russians but later found its way to crisis zones in regions around the world.
“Sheriff is just an organized crime group. That’s it,” says someone I spoke to who has spent significant time in Transnistria and studied the area. “And they own the soccer team for some reason. And now these guys are doing well in Western Europe, and nobody there has any clue that these guys are owned by monsters.”
So Sheriff is just a giant money-laundering front? Is that it? “Oh yeah, everybody knows this,” Malamud says. “The number one business in Transnistria, which finances most of their budget, is gun-trafficking. A lot of illegal guns get trafficked between Europe and Asia through Transnistria, because with a large enough bribe you can accomplish pretty much anything. So this is how they get their money. And this is how the [Sheriff] supermarket chain exists, and this is how the stadium was built—because there’s not enough money in all of Transnistria, except in Swiss bank accounts, to finance a four-star UEFA stadium. That’s like the one claim to fame they’ve got.”
When Sheriff qualified for the Champions League group stage in August, Malamud posted a Twitter thread about Sheriff that went viral, explaining much of the context around the soccer team and Transnistria:
“You should expect to see a very nicely preserved slice of the Soviet Union,” Malamud tells me. “And they’re very proud of it, too. Everything is in different shades of gray. You’ve got lots of Lenin statues and random statues of tanks, and red banners with the hammer and sickle everywhere. And this stadium is the one splash of color anywhere around, this beautiful blue, yellow and black arena in the middle of nothing, just pastures everywhere. It’s an extremely surreal sight.”
There was one other soccer person I wanted to speak to before I left: Octavio Zambrano, an Ecuadorian who coached the LA Galaxy and the New York/New Jersey MetroStars from 1997 to 2002. In his first coaching stint after MLS, Zambrano spent two years at the helm of a now-defunct club called Tiligul-Tiras Tiraspol.
How the heck did Zambrano go from New York to Tiraspol? He says he met a Moldovan agent who brokered a possibility coaching a club in Ukraine in 2006. But that club’s interest cooled, and another opportunity opened up in Moldova. “Honestly, I had to check on the map where Moldova was,” Zambrano says. “Then by request of the owner, I flew into Moldova and entered Tiraspol. It was a shocking moment, but a fascinating moment as well. I thought I’d never actually see what the Soviet Union had looked like. The USSR didn’t exist anymore, but in Tiraspol it seemed as if time had stood still.” He laughs. “And the owner made me an offer I could not refuse.”
Zambrano describes his time in Tiraspol as “wonderful.” The club gave him a VIP house in the countryside, and the soccer facilities were solid. He says he started to pick up some Russian, a language acquisition that was tested heavily in the biggest game of his first season, when the team physiotherapist, who was Zambrano’s interpreter with the players, failed to show up.
“He was a great physiotherapist, but he was prone to having one or two extra vodkas when he shouldn’t,” Zambrano says. “And so the word came to me that he was out. So here I am in front of the team without a translator, and I realized that my Russian was good enough to give all the instructions that I had for the guys. So I gave my pregame, halftime and postgame talks in Russian. For me, it was a wild moment. All the players understood, and we ended up winning the game. It was great.”
After two years Zambrano left Tiraspol for a job in Hungary, but he says he has fond memories of Transnistria and would like to visit again. He even connected me by WhatsApp to an English-speaking friend in Tiraspol named Illia Kraskovski, who volunteered to introduce me to people and meet me for dinner there.
Everyone I talked to was excited that I was getting to visit Tiraspol.
“It’s going to be something else, I’m telling you, Grant,” Zambrano said. “Be ready for it. I could start describing it, but it would not do justice to what you’re about to see.”
Malamud, for his part, signed off with a piece of advice. “If they offer you what they call local cognac in Tiraspol, you may sip it, but I mean, it knocks out a horse,” he said.
“What’s it called?”
“It’s called Kvint. Most Russians are able to withstand it. But it’s strong stuff.”
“Grant! Grant! Get in the car!”
This is concerning. I have been in Tiraspol for only half an hour, just long enough to check into the Hotel Russia. It’s the lone decent hotel in town, the one where Inter and Real Madrid will stay when they visit, the one with the Sheriff Casino.
My driver has already left to return to Chișinău. I am by myself, standing on a corner of October 25th Street and staring at my phone as I try to connect with Keston Julien on a maddeningly poor signal to meet him for an interview at his apartment somewhere in this area.
I haven’t met anybody in Tiraspol yet. But for some reason a guy in a car is yelling my name (how would he know my name?) and telling me in English to get inside.
I flash back to the U.S. State Department’s website, which on October 12 posted its most severe travel advisory warning in bright red about Moldova: Level 4, Do Not Travel.
Do not travel to Moldova due to COVID-19 and unresolved conflict. Exercise increased caution in:
• Transnistria due to the unresolved conflict between this breakaway region and the central government.
Transnistria Region: A separatist regime controls the region and access to U.S. citizens is difficult. The U.S. Embassy may not be able to help if you encounter difficulties there. There are many checkpoints along roads leading into and out of Transnistria. Taking photographs of checkpoints, military facilities, and security forces is prohibited.
A thousand things are racing through my head. Am I being picked up for taking photographs of the customs checkpoint for Transnistria? Those military guys in fatigues took my name and passport info, after all. Is something bad about to happen? I already got mugged at gunpoint in Honduras in 2009 while reporting a story. I’d prefer not to be abducted in Transnistria.
The car stops. It’s a black BMW. I look inside. The driver informs me that he is Illia Kraskovski, Octavio Zambrano’s friend. He smiles. “I thought it was you!” he says. “Welcome to Tiraspol!” Releasing a giant sigh of relief, even though I’m still weirded out that the one person who’d know me in a city of 135,000 would just happen to drive by, I climb into the passenger seat and explain that I’m trying to locate my interview subject. Illia nods, lets me out of the car and says he’ll pick me up at the Hotel Russia at 7 and take me to dinner.
Aside from my player interviews, my first day in Tiraspol is a series of fish-out-of-water vignettes. I love to do what I call “Benjamins Trips,” which is to say reporting trips in which Western credit cards aren’t accepted and I have to bring U.S. $100 bills in an old-fashioned money belt. It means I’m getting off the beaten track. Instructed by the woman at the Hotel Russia front desk to prepay for my room in Transnistrian rubles (i.e., cash), I walk across the street and enter what I think she told me was the bank.
But I’m terrible at reading Cyrillic letters, and it turns out not to be a bank at all. Too late. The woman inside doesn’t speak English, and I have the idiotic habit of getting flustered and trying to speak the one foreign language I do know (Spanish) to a person who still has no idea what I’m saying. After listening to my gibberish, she points me upstairs to a room where a man in his 20s is giving a lecture on Transnistria (in English!) to a group of three visitors.
“Transnistria is not recognized by any other countries,” he’s explaining. “Only by other unrecognized territories.”
“No,” one of the visitors says, wrongly, “it’s recognized by Russia.”
The guide smiles and shows remarkable restraint. There might be a tip at the end of this lecture. “I guess we’ll have to Google that later.” Everybody these days is “doing their own research.”
Tiraspol works harder at tourism than I expected. In the Hotel Russia lobby, I pick up a full-color “Go Transnistria” pamphlet topped by a hammer and sickle, offering €55 full-day “tours by locals. We call it Pridnestrovie.” The pamphlet is dominated by the picture of an attractive young local man and woman who nevertheless have a Stepford/Handmaid’s Tale look that suggests they might put you in the trunk of their car or dump you into the Dniester River behind them.
“Transnistria hired a PR firm a few years ago and created a website for the country, which advertised them as the Eastern European Riviera,” says Slava Malamud. “Pridnestrovie is the Russian word, because they hate that word Transnistria, a Romanian word. They’re really trying to present themselves as something more than they are, but obviously there’s a lot of pride.”
I find the bank—the word “bank” in Cyrillic letters actually does look a lot like “bank”—and convert a few of those Benjamins to Transnistrian rubles to pay for my hotel. After that, I spend the afternoon checking out the Sheriff supermarket (which operates like any other grocery store, except with more alcohol) and walking down October 25th Street, taking pictures of the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet, with its Lenin statue and more hammer-and-sickle flags. (An American friend of mine once snapped photographs of buildings in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and ended up being detained for three days. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here.)
The truth is: Everyone I meet in Transnistria is friendly. Eating at the Love Café with Sebastién Thill and Bosnian teammate Stjepan Radeljić is so pleasant, in fact, that I return there for two more meals during my stay.
When Illia meets me at the Hotel Russia that night, a fleet of black-windowed SUVs is outside the front entrance. “The Sheriff bosses must be having a meeting at the hotel,” he tells me as we pull away.
I perk up. “Do you think Viktor Gushan is here?” I ask. I have become borderline obsessed with the former KGB agent and Sheriff kingpin, by far the most powerful person in Transnistria. Gushan doesn’t give interviews with anyone these days, and the only one with an English-language outlet that anyone can remember took place for a 2005 Vanity Fair story. “Bring any businessman from France or the United States here and he’ll hang himself in six months,” Gushan told the story’s writer, Brett Forrest. “The [Transnistria] stamp is not recognized internationally. Nothing is allowed. We have had to operate … between things.”
Presidents have come and gone in Transnistria over the years, but one thing stays the same: Viktor Gushan remains in power atop Sheriff, atop the smuggling, atop everything in Tiraspol.
“Everybody knows his history,” Octavian Țîcu, a former Moldovan Olympic boxer who became a historian, the country’s Minister of Sport and a member of parliament, tells me during an interview in Chișinău. “[Gushan] was a policeman connected to the gangster world of Tiraspol. They helped him to build at the beginning this empire of Sheriff. And Gushan, like any other high-ranking official from Tiraspol, fought in the war in Transnistria against Moldovans. That's why his image is not popular in Moldova and, respectively, the image of Sheriff Tiraspol, especially in the older generation. The young generation are more or less flexible in taking Sheriff as a representative of Moldova and having some connections and enjoying this victory of Sheriff, but not for a generation which are more responsible and know the atrocity of the war. Because Viktor Gushan was photographed on the tanks.”
To a man, the current Sheriff players I interview say they have never even met Gushan, and I see no reason not to believe them. But Ion Testemițanu, a former Moldovan national team player who played in England for Bristol City and on three separate occasions for Sheriff through 2008, says in his day he spoke about the team regularly to Gushan, who would often visit the locker room to tell players when he was angry or to hand out cash bonuses when he was happy with their performances.
The Chișinău-based Testemițanu, who served as vice-president of the Moldovan FA and has earned respect for fighting corruption and match-fixing in Moldovan soccer (more on that later), is surprisingly upbeat about Gushan, whom he describes as one of the few straight-up figures in the region when it comes to the sporting side of things. “Viktor Gushan was all the time honest with me, actually,” he says. A man must have a code, after all.
And Sheriff’s feats in this season’s Champions League? “That success comes only from one person, Viktor Gushan,” says Testemițanu. “His ambition in life is so big and so high. And this is because he is looking for that, for Champions League, for a long, long time from 1996 [when he founded FC Sheriff]. What he does in life is a big secret, but everything he does, he finishes it. And he’s dreaming for a long time to come to the Champions League group stage to play there and to beat clubs like Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk. And the dream has come true.”
Sitting in Illia’s BMW outside the Hotel Russia, I realize I should ask him to shut off the engine and help me try to meet Gushan at the hotel, or at least see if he’s really there. But, perhaps quite reasonably for a Transnistrian, Illia has no desire to crash that party. He does give me an email for Tiraspol’s mayor, Oleg Dovgopol (“he’s a cool guy”), to talk about how the Champions League games are serving as the biggest international events in Tiraspol’s history. And he says he’s trying to get Sheriff club officials to respond to me. In the end, I barely hear back from anybody. The club eventually sends me a terse email saying I’ll have a media credential for the Sheriff-Inter game but will get none of the interviews I asked for, including with Gushan.
Over a terrific dinner at Lions Arena, a new restaurant overlooking a facility with lighted pickup fútbol fields, Illia explains that soccer isn’t really his game. He was a boxer from age 8 in the Soviet sports system. But he enjoys big events like the Champions League games, and he’s frustrated by a couple things: how hard it is to buy a ticket for the Sheriff-Inter match (a woman working the Hotel Russia front desk tells me the same thing) and the impossibility of purchasing any Sheriff replica jerseys anywhere in Tiraspol.
Three people in New York have asked me for Sheriff shirts, so I visit the store on October 25th Street run by Adidas, Sheriff’s sponsor. They have gear for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Arsenal. But when I ask the salesperson if they have anything for FC Sheriff, the team in her own city, she gives me a one-word response.
Gustavo Dulanto, the Sheriff captain, says he ran into the same problem: “My mom and dad said, ‘We want your Sheriff jersey.’ And I looked for one, but there was no team store. So it’s a weird situation, but it is what it is.”
“When I ask people at the club why they don’t sell Sheriff shirts, they say nobody wants to buy them,” Illia says after we finish dinner. To be honest, he continues, “I don’t think any of this Champions League means anything for the people of Tiraspol.” He shrugs. “Someone gets millions.”
It turns out that Illia works as a sales executive for Kvint, the Tiraspol distillery and winery that Slava Malamud told me about. I keep my distance from the cognac, but our bottle of Kvint red wine over dinner is a revelation. They make good vino in Moldova.
My Viktor Gushan pursuit continues all week.
“You can try your chance to have an interview with him, but I think it will be hard,” Sebastién Thill says.
When I ask Testemițanu what he would do if he were a journalist trying to reach Gushan, he laughs. “I don’t try it,” he says, “because I know there is no chance.”
At one point I get Gushan’s phone number from a source who says it’s legit. I send texts and call him but receive no responses. Then on Champions League match night against Inter, I stake out the stadium’s VIP entrance in the hours before the game. Gushan never appears.
Gameday in the Moldovan league: On the Sunday night before the Sheriff-Inter Champions League game, I’ve come to Hîncești, a town of 12,000 an hour’s drive southwest of Chișinău. It’s a top-of-the-table clash between host Petrocub and Sheriff, and the vibe is a lot like a high school soccer game in the U.S. Tickets are free. There are maybe 300 fans and just one table selling hot coffee and tea, which hit the spot on a chilly evening.
The scene is a charming one, and the soccer isn’t bad—Sheriff, which has claimed 19 of the past 21 Moldovan titles, wins 2-0—but it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that one of these teams just won a Champions League game at Real Madrid.
More importantly, while the contrast between the Champions League and the Moldovan league may seem quaint on the surface, teams in the Moldovan league are dying in a system everyone here says is corrupt, and Sheriff isn’t doing anything to help matters. During my interview with Testemițanu, one of Moldova’s greatest players and a former national team assistant coach, I ask him: Does FC Sheriff’s success have anything to do with the Moldovan league?
“No, never,” he says. “That is absolute. We have a lot of problems in the Moldovan league, like fixing matches. Our national teams are regressing every year. In Moldovan football, every year clubs disappear. There are problems with finances. with sponsors, with everything. So we don't really have any professional football in Moldova. Before, 15 years ago, we had something. Now, nothing. Only fixing games. I saw it yesterday, fixing games.”
“Sfintul Gheorghe beat Dinamo-Auto,” Testemițanu says. “So I see the goals. and I understand what happened there. I see the games. FC Floresti-Zimbru, 3-0. I see the goals. I understand how they won. I know everything that has happened.” He shows me the highlights on his phone. They’re certainly soft goals, marked mainly by goalkeeper blunders.
When the topic is match-fixing in Moldova, Testemițanu knows whereof he speaks. In 2015, when he was the federation VP, reps from the notorious Singaporean global match-fixing ring led by Dan Tan and Wilson Raj Perumal invited Testemițanu to dinner at a restaurant next door to where we’re speaking now in Chișinău.
“A guy I know told me some people from abroad were coming to invest, to buy some clubs here,” Testemițanu says. “Can you consult with them about Moldovan football? Okay, no problem. They started talking, and 15 minutes later they tried to give me €50,000 to be loyal with them, to organize the games. I told them, ‘That is very serious, what you want to do. I have to think about it. I will call you back.’ I go away shaking. I never felt like this before. It was very stressful.”
Testemițanu went straight to the police. And for two weeks of meetings he made secret audio and video recordings as the fixers arranged through him (and a young goalkeeper who was also cooperating with police) for Moldova’s Under-21 men’s national team to lose to Belgium by a three-goal margin.
“They were arrested, and they found $250,000 in their apartments,” Testemițanu says. He remains dismayed, though, that the perpetrators were given suspended sentences and allowed to pay a fine and go free. “I go there and ask these people, ‘Listen, what are you doing?’” he says. “‘I risked my life. My wife was shaking every evening. You give me protection, everything. And after that you just let them go?’”
Compared to the rest of Moldova’s teams, Sheriff is swimming in money. But while Sheriff is technically in the Moldovan league, the requirements for a team based in Transnistria are different from those for the other clubs.
“Sheriff Tiraspol pays not one single lei [the national currency] to the Moldovan economy. Not one,” says Octavian Țîcu, the former national Minister for Sport. “And I put this question in parliament because Petrocub, for example, which is from Hîncești, a small regional center, the owner paid [to] the Republic of Moldova taxes for salary, taxes for international transfers, taxes for participation in the Europa League. Sheriff pays nothing.”
“They simply destroyed our football,” he continues. “They use our football for their own interest. They have football success, and Moldova is a kind of sparring partner, using the boxing terminology. They have almost no Moldovans in their team and no benefits for the national team or the future of Moldovan football. Because we know they don’t invest in Moldovan football properly. They invest in Sheriff.”
Five days after my arrival in Tiraspol, the big night finally arrives: Sheriff is hosting Inter on UEFA Champions League Matchday 4. If Sheriff wins, it will stay top of the group, ahead of Real Madrid and Inter, with just two games left. A Sheriff loss will leave it in third place, behind the two favorites. Before the game I make one last attempt to find some Sheriff merch and locate a tiny tent outside the stadium. There are no jerseys for sale, only half-Sheriff, half-Inter scarves commemorating the game. I buy three for people back home.
After my fruitless Viktor Gushan stakeout, I venture 30 minutes before kickoff into the Ultras Sheriff section of the stands. It’s like any other supporters group anywhere in the world: They raise their Sheriff scarves in unison, belt out chants in Russian and raise an elaborate tifo right before the game. Not many of the ultras are comfortable speaking English to me, but I have a fun conversation with Alex Sazonov, the friendly lead drummer.
Is this the most important game in Sheriff history?
“Yes. Now this is the biggest game, because Inter is the biggest club who come here. But Real Madrid will be even bigger!”
And what do you want people in my country to know about FC Sheriff and Tiraspol?
“That Sheriff will win the Champions League!”
When I speak to Sheriff’s players, one thing becomes clear to me: The contrast between the Moldovan league and the UEFA Champions League is huge, but the one between Sheriff’s shady ownership and its thoroughly likable players may be even bigger. These guys uprooted their lives and their families to come to “the end of the world,” as Gustavo Dulanto says. They have pulled off astonishing Champions League upsets and put themselves in a position to be bought by richer teams in more established soccer countries that can offer a better standard of living. You can’t help but root for them.
Keston Julien left Trinidad and Tobago at age 19, spent three years with a club in Slovakia and came to Tiraspol with dreams of playing in the English Premier League. He checks the Transfermarkt website and sees the value of Sheriff players increasing by the month. “A lot of clubs are interested in our players,” he says. “I have a friend, [midfielder Edmund] Addo, the number 21. He's from Ghana. I think before the Champions League his value was maybe $300,000. Now his value is $1.2 million.”
Dulanto may not be able to get Disney+ in Tiraspol, but he appreciates the opportunity that Sheriff’s European run has afforded him. “My life has changed a lot since we qualified for the Champions League,” he says. “Good performances, both individually and at a group level, help finding another team in a better league and help financially speaking. That’s why I came here. I’m very grateful to the club, and the truth is I’m very happy here. I try to thank them on the field, leaving everything I have for the club. I have spoken to my agent and said, ‘Don’t talk to me about which teams want me,’ because I’m clearly focused on Sheriff. After December 7 [the final Champions League group game, after which the team has a two-month winter break], I’ll have time to relax, and we’ll talk about it.”
Only one year into his life as a fully professional soccer player, Sebastién Thill is still discovering what he can achieve. He went to Russia to find out, and now Tiraspol, and having scored at the Bernabéu and San Siro, he’d love to continue his path upward in the European game and lead Luxembourg to its first major tournament.
Thill says he has more tattoos on the way. Maybe he’ll get one on his left leg with the date of his goal at Real Madrid. “I need to finish [covering] my back, so this will be a big project,” he says. “For the rest, there’s not that much space. Maybe my neck? But I wait for my marriage. I want to look normal on photos, and then afterward, maybe.”
The Champions League game against Inter goes well—for the first half. Inter dominates, but Sheriff holds firm and the teams are scoreless at the break. The Italian champion’s quality takes over in the second half, however. Goals by Marcelo Brozović, Milan Škriniar and Alexis Sánchez give Inter a 3-0 lead. A late goal by Sheriff’s Adama Traoré (not the Wolves one) isn’t enough. Inter wins 3-1, leaving the group standings like this: Real Madrid 9 points, Inter 7, Sheriff 6, Shakhtar 1.
To advance to the Champions League Round of 16 in February, Sheriff must hope to get something from its home game against Real Madrid, then to win at Shakhtar. “Is it hard? Yes. Is it impossible? No,” says Dulanto. “I’m quite confident in my teammates, I fully trust them. And, well, we’re going for everything, which for us is the second round.”
I’m conflicted as I leave Tiraspol for the long journey home. The Sheriff players are great guys. We even stay in touch now on Instagram. I want them to advance in the Champions League, or at least finish third in their group and go into the Europa League elimination rounds. But they also play for a club run by “monsters,” as more than one person I spoke to described them.
How should I feel about FC Sheriff? I can’t help but think back to something Slava Malamud told me in our conversation. “If you've ever read Russian literature of any kind,” he said, “there's no clear border between happy, sad, depressing, uplifting, horrifying and wonderful.”
The story of FC Sheriff has all those elements. There’s no clear border on the page. There’s no clear border between countries. Seeking clarity in Transnistria is a lot like pursuing Viktor Gushan. You’ll probably never find it.