A team from a forgotten impoverished corner of Europe not only qualifies for Europe's most prestigious soccer tournament but beats one of the continent's titans in the early stages of the competition.
Sheriff Tiraspol's improbable run in the Europe-wide Champions League has been splashed in headlines around the globe, especially after their win in late September over Real Madrid, beating the Spanish club 2-1. They face another giant of European soccer, Inter Milan, in the Champions League on October 19.
But behind the team's Hollywood-like rise lurks a darker tale.
Sheriff Tiraspol is part of a larger business empire founded by two men with shadowy pasts that not only dominates business but politics in Transdniester, a breakaway region of Moldova that borders Ukraine and is dependent on the Kremlin for support.
The company created by Viktor Gusan and Ilya Kazmaly -- Sheriff Ltd. -- comprises supermarkets, gas stations, construction companies, hotels, a mobile phone network, bakeries, a distillery, as well as a mini media empire of radio and TV stations. Sheriff Ltd. is said to control an estimated 60 percent of the region's economy.
Its best-known asset is Sheriff Tiraspol, which was founded in 1997 and boasts Gusan as its president. Despite its separatist ties, the team plays and dominates in the eight-team top national league of Moldova.
"The Sheriff Tiraspol soccer team is just a part of an empire that effectively controls the breakaway region economically," explains Sabine von Lowis of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, in an interview with RFE/RL.
"It is also true in politics as well. Every member of parliament is connected with the party founded by Gusan," adds von Lowis, referring to the ruling Obnovlenie, or Renewal, party.
Pro-Russian separatists in Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 amid concerns that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania as the Soviet Union fell apart. Two years later, the separatists fought government forces in a conflict that left nearly 600 dead.
The region is now split more or less into three equal ethnic minorities: Ukrainians, Russians, and Moldovans. Around half of those who live in Transdniester have Russian citizenship. Many have Moldovan passports as well.
Transdniester, with its own border police, army, currency, and hammer-and-sickle-emblazoned flag, has not been recognized internationally, but Moscow unofficially backs the separatists' self-declared government, including supplying it with free energy. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed there today in what is one of Europe's longest-running frozen conflicts.
Breakaway Transdniester has long been described as a lawless land caught in a Soviet time warp. A 2020 U.S. State Department report listed arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and serious restrictions on freedom of movement among a long list of human rights abuses observed in Transdniester.
Starting With Supermarkets
Not much is known about the Soviet-era pasts of the club's two founders before their rise to prominence in the 1990s. In 1993, Gusan, 59, and Kazmaly, 58, founded the Sheriff business holding company, striking a deal with Transdniester's first de facto leader, Igor Smirnov, who allowed the two would-be oligarchs to take over state-controlled supermarkets in the separatist-controlled area.
"They made it a Western-style supermarket chain and filled it with more or less legally traded products," von Lowis explains.
Sheriff supermarkets bearing the company's five-point star soon emerged, stocked with goods that were thought to be smuggled across Transdniester's border with Ukraine.
"For more than a quarter of a century, Moldova has been unable to control trade flows along Transdniester's section of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border," explains Vladimir Thorik, editor of RISE Moldova, an investigative journalism project that is part of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and a member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
As RISE Moldova and many other media outlets have chronicled, Sheriff allegedly owes its fortune to the illegal trade in cigarettes, alcohol, and food, much of which allegedly ends up smuggled out of the Ukrainian port of Odesa 80 kilometers away.
Today, legitimate or not, Sheriff and its web of companies dominate the economy in the Moldovan breakaway region, explains Michael Bobick, a U.S. scholar who has written extensively on the region and Sheriff.
"A result of their subsequent state capture and monopolization of the consumer sector, what was once viewed as contraband now forms an integral part of Transdniester's economy," Bobick told RFE/RL in written comments.
Sheriff also grabbed other assets in the region as Soviet-era industry was auctioned off. Valery Litskay, a separatist official and adviser to Smirnov, played a key role in the privatization drive.
"Sheriff won the competition," Litskay told the AFP news agency on September 27, explaining that it offered "the best prices and guarantees" that the factories would "continue running."
But Litskay said the company had a "very dark criminal history," recalling that it had a "tough fight" with competitors.
Sheriff did not respond to RFE/RL requests for comment on the allegations of criminality or the company's finances.
If politics is the shadow cast by business, then perhaps no case illustrates that better than the relationship in Transdniester between the ruling Obnovlenie party and the Sheriff conglomerate.
"All members of parliament are more or less connected with Sheriff. The son of Gusan is a member of parliament," explains von Lowis, referring to Yevgeny Gusan, a member of Transdniester's so-called Supreme Soviet.
Those ties have translated into financial gain for Sheriff -- and for the members of parliament working for the company. Dubbing Transdniester "Sheriff Republic," RISE Moldova alleged that by 2015 one-third of all the money from the separatists' annual state budget ended up in companies owned by Sheriff.
Vadim Krasnoselsky, the current leader of Transdniester whose presidential campaign was financed by Sheriff, hails the company as the region's "main taxpayer."
"They create new jobs, they invest," he told the AFP news agency in September. "They are a reliable partner. They can be trusted."
Russian Soft Power
In 1997, Gusan and Kazmaly founded FC Sheriff, rebranding an already existing team: Tiras Tiraspol. With an annual budget estimated at some $4.7 million -- not much for high-level European soccer teams, but princely in Moldova, Europe's poorest country -- Sheriff has won 19 titles in 23 years with a roster of mainly foreign players, plus a smattering of Moldovans. The team's appearance in the Champions League this season is its greatest success, but the team has qualified in the past for UEFA's Europa League, the second-most-prestigious club soccer competition in Europe.
But Sheriff Tiraspol is more than just a soccer team, argues Mihai Isac, a Moldovan political expert. "The football club is involved in different actions designed to promote the relations between Transdniester and Russia," Isac recently told Euronews.
In 2015, Interdnestrcom -- a telecoms company belonging to the Sheriff empire -- was allowed by Moscow to operate in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine a year earlier, RISE Moldova alleged.
With a Russian passport, Gusan is "a hard-core proponent of Ruskiy Mir with Transdniester as one of its centers," Isac said, referring to a Kremlin-supported belief that the millions of Russian speakers outside of Russia, such as in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, are part of a larger "Russian World."
Gusan also has Ukrainian citizenship as well as owning land and property in the Kyiv and Odesa regions of Ukraine. Through firms linked to him, the oligarch controls a 600-square-meter dwelling in the Odesa region that he uses as a vacation home, according to Skhemy (Schemes), a joint venture of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and UA:Pershy television.
Beyond Gusan's properties abroad, businesses held by Sheriff are also active outside the former Soviet space. Goods, from textiles to construction materials, head to Western Europe and caviar is sold to the United States and Japan. Tirotex, a textile manufacturer linked to Sheriff, exports more than 40 percent of its products to Italy.
Little Trickle Down
Qualifying for the Champions League has already been a financial boon to Gusan and the Sheriff business empire, with the team earning $15.64 million euros ($18 million). That money has grown with the positive results. A win in the group stage -- something Sheriff has done twice already -- means 2.8 million euros in a team's coffers. A tie earns clubs 930,000 euros. And more money is guaranteed the further a team progresses. The winner of the tournament will win a total of 85.1 million euros.
While many in Moldova have been applauding the team's success in the Champions League, Madalin Necsutu, a reporter in Chisinau, says success on the field won't likely benefit Transdniester, let alone Moldova.
"There is no promotion of sports or athletes from the Republic of Moldova, not even from Transdniester. Even if that was the case, we would probably have little reason to cheer," Necsutu told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, noting that few of the players on the team are actually Moldovan. "We have seen a team with a lot of money that, as they say at the bank, has 'produced dividends,' reaching the group stage of the Champions League that will benefit the club's owners."
Perhaps the biggest prize, however, is the burnishing of Transdniester's international image, the so-called "sportwashing," Necsutu contends.
"The leaders in Transdniester, with lots of help from Russia, have tried in recent years to raise the image of the region internationally. But what they couldn't achieve through classical diplomacy they have achieved through the diplomacy of soccer."