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Fans of European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan will see their teams face unusual competition this autumn: A club from a tiny separatist region in one of Europe’s least-known countries, Moldova.

After a couple of failed attempts, Sheriff FC is making its debut in the group stage of Europe’s top soccer competition this year, becoming the first team ever from the ex-Soviet country to reach the Champions League itself.

But its historic success is highlighting divisions in the wake of a brief civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of Transnistria.

The tiny breakaway state has its own currency, border police, army and cellular network but is not recognized internationally, allowing Sheriff to continue playing in the Moldovan league.

The Moldovan Football Federation celebrated the qualification as “EUROFANTASTIC!!!”, a sentiment echoed by sports blogger Sandu Grecu, who called it a “massive achievement for Moldovan football.”

Not everyone is so thrilled.

“I don’t see much reason to be happy,” sports journalist Cristian Jardan said.

“The team represents a separatist enclave where corruption, smuggling and shadow economy deals are rife, which directly damage the budget and state interests of the Republic of Moldova.”

The Champions League spot, he said, will only benefit the owners of Sheriff — “and nothing more”.

Founded in 1997, the young club based in the breakaway region’s administrative hub, Tiraspol, has been on a steady climb into the limelight.

It has won six straight Moldovan league titles and 19 out of the last 21.

At a training session last weekend at Sheriff Stadium — soon to host the likes of Karim Benzema and Lautaro Martinez — coach Yuriy Vernydub was still processing Champions League qualification.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” the 55-year-old Ukrainian said. “It’s a fairy tale.”

He acknowledged there were political overtones to the moment, but was upbeat about the opportunity it presented.

“People say sport isn’t politics,” the 55-year-old said. “Sport is politics.”

The games, he said optimistically, “will probably unite” fans Moldova and Transnistria.

Since 2009, the side has played four times in Europe’s second-tier competition, the Europa League, and twice been eliminated in the Champions League qualifying rounds.

This year saw them earn a coveted Champions League slot and about €16 million ($19 million) in guaranteed prize money.

It’s a significant sum for a team whose entire squad is valued at just €12 million ($14 million) and is dwarfed by its Group D competitors.

By comparison, the specialist website Transfermarkt estimates that Real Madrid boasts a €780-million team, Inter Milan’s totals €575 million and Shakhtar Donetsk’s €180 million.

The Sheriff conglomerate, which has an economic and political monopoly in the breakaway Moldovan state of Transnistria, built a 13,000-seat stadium for Sheriff FC. | AFP-JIJI
The Sheriff conglomerate, which has an economic and political monopoly in the breakaway Moldovan state of Transnistria, built a 13,000-seat stadium for Sheriff FC. | AFP-JIJI

During weekend training session, the team was looking ahead — even past their first Champions League game with Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday — to Real Madrid later this month.

Dribbling by Brazilian defender Cristiano da Silva Leite, Ghanaian midfielder Edmund Addo called out: “Benzema! Benzema!”

The two are part of an international cohort. At a league game on Sunday, the team’s starting lineup featured three Brazilians, two Greeks, two Colombians, one Peruvian, one Guinean, one Ghanaian, one Luxembourger and zero Moldovans.

The players do their research before coming to the little-known pro-Russian breakaway state.

Gustavo Dulanto, a 26-year-old Peruvian defender, messaged the team’s captain Frank Castenada on Instagram and Googled Sheriff FC before coming to a separatist sliver of land one-fifth the size of Wales.

Yet the politics are inescapable. The club is owned by the Sheriff conglomerate that has an economic and political monopoly in Transnistria.

Founded by two Soviet police officers, the company is shrouded in allegations of corruption.

In Tiraspol, a city of about 130,000 people, Sheriff’s logo is everywhere — supermarkets, gas stations, even a casino. One of its cofounders, Viktor Gushan, is Sheriff FC’s president.

He has built a sprawling complex featuring a 13,000-seat stadium, a second 9,000-seat stadium, an indoor arena, 16 training fields, tennis courts and an indoor pool.

Serghei Pascenco, a 38-year-old backup goalkeeper who was born in Tiraspol and has been with the club since childhood, said the Champions League was always “our president’s dream.”

A longtime supporter, Igor Troshchinsky, believes Gushan’s investments helped put Transnistria on the map.

“Even more people will find out that there is this unrecognized country,” the 61-year-old says of Sheriff’s qualification.

But Troshchinsky was less confident in his side’s Champions League chances.

“We were working towards this 20 years. In another 10 years maybe we make it out of the group stage,” he joked.

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