The trip of Real Madrid to the not completely disappeared Soviet Union

A tank from the Soviet era, celebrating the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany. / afp

The Madrid team will have to play this Wednesday against FC Sheriff at their stadium in Tiráspol (Moldova) in a decisive match in the Champions League

Apart from the team that surprised them two and one last September, what will Real Madrid and the fans that accompany it this Wednesday find in Tiráspol, the capital of the self-proclaimed independent republic of Transnistria? This narrow and elongated strip of territory embedded between the Dniester River and Ukraine is one of those “black holes” created by Russia to make life miserable for the former Soviet republics that seek on their own to approach the West and ignore Moscow’s interests.

Transnistria, which with an area of ​​4,163 square kilometers does not reach the size of the Balearic Islands, is not the only “theme park” existing in the immense ex-Soviet space that clearly allows us to remember what the USSR was like, its anodyne architecture and ramshackle cities.

Very few European teams of the stature of Real Madrid have had to play in one of those living remnants of communism. And it is that Tiráspol is an atypical city. It is the capital of an unfinished state, not recognized by any member country of the UN. Between March and July 1992, he fought a war against the rest of the country (Moldova) to which he formally belongs. The units of the 14th Russian Army Corps are still stationed there today. They are called “peacekeeping troops” and their deployment in Transnistria, almost 30 years ago, was part of the agreements reached between Tiráspol and Chisinau, sponsored by Moscow, to end hostilities.

But after that fight, bad times came. Russia, the country that sponsors and supports them, was almost broke. But the penalties did nothing but forge the mettle of the Transnistria, who further reaffirmed their exclusivity. They are not ethnic Romanians like the Moldovans, but Slavs, Russians and Ukrainians.

In such a critical situation, all kinds of smuggling flourished, from cigarettes and alcoholic beverages to weapons and, later, mobile phones. Local mafias ran all of these businesses and exacerbated corruption by colluding with politicians and officials. The locals justify themselves by arguing that they had to survive in some way.

All that framework required a great security device to watch over the interests of the incipient new companies and those already existing since the communist era that had been privatized. So a group of former Soviet policemen led by Victor Gushan created the Sheriff security company. It quickly became the hegemonic lobby.

He managed, with brutal methods, to put all the mafias and criminal groups at bay. And so, they began to privatize and control many other businesses such as the Tiratex textile factory or the Kvint distilleries. The word “Sheriff” has been part of the lexicon of the Moldovan population for a long time. This holding company, whose name is completely foreign to the countries of Eastern Europe, has existed since 1993, and today it is the main monopolist of this unrecognized republic.

It controls almost all spheres of the economy: supermarkets, gas stations, service stations, casinos, mobile telephony, a bank, a television channel, textile, iron and steel, electrical, wine and caviar production. The former Foreign Minister of Transnistria, Nina Shevchuk, maintains that the enclave is called “the Sheriff’s Republic” because, as she says, “it even intervenes in the elaboration of laws and determines the maximum amount of taxes”, of which it is the main taxpayer. The current leader of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselski, for his part, says that Gushan “creates a lot of jobs and invests in the economy.”

Gushan is rarely seen in public, he shuns interviews with the press and his fortune, according to various estimates, is estimated at 2 billion euros. This peculiar businessman does not tolerate competition, not only in business and politics, not only in football. In 1997, on the basis of the modest team «Strips» from Transnistria created the FC Sheriff. Two seasons later, he already played in the Moldavian National Division, the equivalent of the First Division, and in the third he won the Moldavian league. Since then, the Tiráspol club failed to win the gold medal only twice, in 2011 and 2015.

Success was always due, how could it be otherwise, to Gushan’s generous injections of money. The team has a budget between five and ten times that of other teams in Moldova, according to sports commentators in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. So FC Sheriff is not only the most powerful club in Moldova but also the one with the best infrastructure. Its stadium in Tiráspol, which is also called “Sheriff”, has a capacity for 13,500 spectators while the largest in Chisinau, Zimbru, only has a capacity of 10,500.

Teams such as Marseille, Fenerbahce, Twente, Copenhagen or Lokomotiv Moscow passed through Tiráspol. All of them were rivals of FC Sheriff in the group stage of the Europa League, to which the Transnistria team acceded four times. In 2017, he became third in the group, ahead of Lokomotiv Moscow. In 2020, he made it through four rounds of the Champions League qualification, eliminating Albanian Teuta, Armenian Alashkert, Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb.

They now compete in the group stage of the Champions League against Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar of Donetsk. He has already beaten the white team in Madrid, Shakhtar at home and lost both played with Inter, thus occupying third place in the group D table. His match with Real Madrid in Tiráspol is decisive.

The meringues are going to find a parallel reality just 200 kilometers from the eastern external border of the European Union, which runs between Romania and Moldova, and more than 600 kilometers in a straight line from Russia. The signs on the roads are in Cyrillic while on the other side of the river they are in Latin characters. When you arrive in Transnistria, you have to undergo a passport control as if you were going to another country. The enclave once had half a million inhabitants, but due to the low salaries of those who are not under the protective umbrella of Gushan, the young population is emigrating to Russia, Romania and other countries of the European Union.

It is estimated that just over 300,000 people now live in the enclave. They are of Orthodox religion and prefer to use Russian instead of Moldovan as their main language. The Transnistrian flag is the same as the Soviet one, red with a hammer and sickle, with the only difference that it has a central green stripe. The Soviet imprint is part of the culture and idiosyncrasy of these people and they pride themselves on it without qualms.



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